The morning traffic along Langata Road, Nairobi is heavy as we navigate the highway on our way to Kiserian, about 30km away.
Our vehicle moves slowly, making me worry about my appointment with farmer Lister Kinuthia.
A stern police officer saves my day after he impounds vehicles of motorists who were ‘‘overlapping’’, and worsening the snarl-up.
We soon zoom off, and arrive in Kiserian town about 40 minutes later. It takes me 10 minutes to locate Gad Eden, Lister’s quarter acre farm that has specialised in raising vegetable seedlings on soilless growing medium, which is also known as soilless potting mix.
Lister is dressed in a white overcoat, a blue denim skirt, a matching blouse and gumboots. I find her packing 2,000 cabbage seedlings in carton boxes for transit to Kitale.
“We grow seeds in the soilless medium made from peat moss, perlite, vermiculite and sand then sell to horticultural farmers in different parts of the country,” explains Lister of the business that she started over three years ago with Sh300,000.
“Our customers make orders on phone, pay and we pack the seedlings and send to them via courier service.”
The farmer sells ready-to-plant seedlings of various cabbages, including Chinese varieties, capsicum, spinach, tomatoes, melons, white and bulb onions and culinary spice herbs such as sage, tropical mint, basil, mint and parsley.
Lister has four greenhouses measuring 5 by 10m, 8 by 15m and 6 by 15m in which she has erected several structures that host the thousands of seedlings planted inside trays. She uses three greenhouses for raising seedlings and another for demonstration.
Outside her compound is a small parcel, where she grows traditional vegetables and onions, including seedlings, for her consumption and sale.
Lister says the open field farm also acts as a testimony to farmers because she plants the seedlings she grows.
“We raise the seedlings both for open field and greenhouse farming. For crops to be planted in greenhouses, their seedlings are better grown in the same structures if farmers are to have good results,” explains Lister, who was running an eatery in Rongai before going into the business.
In this kind of farming, plants are grown in a mixture of organic and inorganic materials, unlike the traditional way of raising seedlings from soil. The growing medium is a light and dustless fluffy material that resembles soil yet almost spongy with a sandy soil feel.
The mother of two initially started off as an ordinary vegetable farmer with only one greenhouse in 2010 before settling on her new frontier three years later.
“At the beginning, I used to raise my seedlings from the ordinary soil like what most farmers do, but only a few would sprout. Later, only a fraction of the germinated seedlings would survive when transplanted,” the farmer, who has six employees, explains.
After the experience with soil-raised seedlings, the farmer researched on the internet and came across soilless media nursery gardening, a technology that has successfully been used in growing seedlings in the flower industry over the years.
The new findings handed her floundering farming a new lease of life. However, there was a problem. The material was not locally available.
“While I was still toiling with the idea of importing the soilless material from South Africa, I met a friend who worked at a flower farm in Naivasha. I purchased 10 bags of the soilless material from her at Sh6,000 each,” she explains, noting the media is not yet available in the country.
The bag produces 25 trays that have a capacity to grow 245 seedlings.
To grow seeds in the soilless medium, one needs a tray that resembles that of eggs. The trays are made of plastic or some material used in wrapping electronic items.
“The soilless medium is strewn on the trays, then a seed placed in every pot after which more of it is added to cover the seeds,” explains Lister adding that water is sprinkled after planting.
According to experts, soilless planting provides aerated and well-drained medium for growing seeds. This guarantees 90 to 95 per cent germination rate, besides providing easy uprooting of seedlings when transplanting without fear of damaging its root system.
Unlike in the traditional nursery soil where plants take 21 days to mature before transplanting, capsicum and tomatoes take five and seven days respectively when grown in the soilless medium, the farmer notes.
“The seedlings also sprout uniformly, and there is no fear of breaking a plant’s root during transplantation. And the medium is composed of necessary minerals and nutrients hence a farmer does not need to buy fertiliser,” she adds.
In the growing medium, peat moss nutrient has water-holding capacity, and pine bark has a porous structure to avoid compaction. The medium also contains calcium and potassium nitrate, phosphorus and magnesium.
One needs at least Sh200,000 to start such kind of business, she says. The farmer sells herb seedlings at Sh30 each while the cost of vegetable seedlings range from Sh2 to Sh10.
“On a good day I sell about 200,000 seedlings on order. The good thing with this kind of farming is that seedlings cannot be attacked by diseases because the growing medium is sterilised.”
In 2013, the farmer was awarded a six months medium entrepreneurship training by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for an outstanding agribusiness idea. She attended the training at United States International University.
Water is able to drain through the medium and the aerated environment allows air pockets to form, helping the seed to spread its roots far into the container for a successful transplant when the plant is ready for a final location in the garden.
Soilless growing media, according to agricultural experts, are usually cleaner and sterile, making them more popular with container gardeners.
Using this material rather than soil allows gardeners to grow healthier plants without the threat of soil-borne diseases.
Dr Richard Onwonga, a crop expert at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Land Resource Management and Agricultural Technology, underscores the importance of starting off farming with a clean planting material noting that raising seedlings from the soil subjects the crops to attack by soil-borne diseases.
“Starting off farming with disease-contaminated seedling would lead to total crop failure due to diseases like bacterial wilt,” warns Dr Onwonga.
He adds that plants only need nutrients to grow and not necessarily soil. “Plants grown in soilless mixes are also less likely to be bothered by pests.”