The weather is excessively humid as Seeds of Gold team ventures into Gathina village in Gatitu, Nyeri County.
Our stop is at Haraka Afya farm operated by Francis Mathenge and his wife Grace Wanjiru.
Grace is inside a small greenhouse when we arrive. A peek inside tells us what she is up to.
She is busy spreading sliced bananas, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and cassava on shelves made of wire mesh.
Joyce Muthoni, a neighbour and a friend, is helping her do the work.
“This is my solar dryer,” Grace says, seemingly reading our minds. “We use the structure to add value to bananas, pumpkins, cassavas and sweet potatoes to end up with porridge flour.”
The solar dryer is a small structure made of timber, wire mesh to hold the produce and greenhouse plastic sheet.
“It is a simple structure that one can make on the farm themselves and costs less. We learned of it during an agri-fair at Wambugu farm in Nyeri in July last year and decided to built it,” said Grace, adding it cost them Sh50,000, money they borrowed from a bank.
Once closed, humidity in the greenhouse is trapped increasing the temperatures making the pieces to dry faster.
“The temperature in the greenhouse is always higher than that outside. Sometimes in hot seasons, it rises to as high as 50 degrees Celsius, therefore, the produce dries faster in a controlled environment.
The drying method also prevents the pieces from losing vitamins,” explains Grace.
The value addition process, however, starts with the buying of the ingredients that consist of bananas, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, cassava, millet and sorghum from local markets.
“We buy a bunch of bananas at Sh200, pumpkin at Sh30 each, 100kg bag of sweet potatoes at Sh900 and 100kg bag of cassavas at Sh1,500. Sorghum and millet goes for an average of Sh50 per kilo,” says Grace.
PROMOTING TRADITIONAL CROPS' CONSUMPTION
The first four are washed, chopped into pieces and soaked in water mixed with Sodium metabisulfite.
“We don’t peel them because their skins contain nutrients that should not be lost. But for cassava we peel because the outer covering can be poisonous. The Sodium metabisulfite prevents growth of moles and fungi when kept in the dryer for about a week,” explains Grace.
Banana peels, according to nutritionists, are rich in Vitamins B6 and B12, potassium and magnesium.
Pumpkins, on the other hand, are rich in zinc and the peelings have Vitamin A and C while sweet potato peels are good in fibre and further contain Vitamins A and C.
During the cold season, the sliced pieces take up to a month to completely dry.
The farmers have partitioned the solar dryer into shelves to allow it to accommodate more.
Thereafter, after the drying, they mix the slices with sorghum or millet or cassava or all of them at once and take for grinding at a posho mill for Sh10 for 2kg tin.
“The first flour we made we used it at home and found it tasty. This is what encouraged us to go commercial because even neighbours loved it,” says Grace, who makes the produce in different quantities for sale.
Mathenge says their business is largely aimed at promoting consumption of traditional crops.
“We sell the uji flour from Sh100 to Sh250, depending on the size of the packs we have branded Haraka Afya. We pack in half a kilo, a kilo and 2kg packs making 1,500 packets every two weeks,” says Grace, who trains other farmers on the value addition skills they picked at Wambugu farm.
SOLAR ENERGY DRYER
They sell their flour to women groups in Nyeri, Kirinyaga and Laikipia counties when invited to train them.
“We further sell during farmers’ field days, at open air markets in Nyeri and Karatina, but our biggest market is at churches on Sundays. In a week, we sell up to 1,000 packs of various sizes,” says Mathenge, who is an electrician while his wife manages the business.
They plan to build a bigger solar dryer and open a shop in Nyeri Town where they would sell the produce that is in the process of being certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards.
Joseph Mwangi, an agro-processing agricultural officer in Nyeri, says farmers should be encouraged to add value to produce for more cash.
He noted that the solar dryer is easy to construct, hygienic, affordable and clean as it uses solar energy.
“The dryer can be used to dry any farm produce, including vegetables, maize and beans for preservation or before one sells.”
If not greenhouse material, one can use transparent plastic material to make the dryer, he says, adding one should avoid black plastic material because it absorbs a lot of heat.