The farm, located on the hills surrounding Nyeri, is hidden between large banana trees and a maize plantation.
It is drizzling when we arrive. Tiny drops of water become little pools on top of the leaves. Thirty-one-year-old Jotham Kariuki inspects his sukuma wiki (collard greens) plants in the rain as his bright yellow jacket prevents him from getting wet.
He checks the roots and removes some aged leaves from the plants.
“My parents advised me to study clinical medicine since I was a young boy, but I wanted to become a farmer. After my studies, I started running this farm.
I prefer to be my own boss and make decisions myself. But above all, farming is my passion,” says Kariuki, who farms on 1.5 acres.
Besides vegetables, he also grows bananas, maize, coffee, mangoes and avocados. He also keeps about some 12 chickens and a few cows and goats, which enable him to sell eggs and milk.
To start, he got a loan from the Youth Enterprise Development Fund, about Sh300,000 and added Sh200,000 from his savings.
“I started with tomatoes, sukuma wiki, eggplant and capsicum. The fruits and animals came later. Greenhouse tomato farming turned out to be most difficult, especially in the beginning.”
The challenges he experienced with greenhouse, which included diseases, pushed him to seek advice from fellow farmers, and together, they formed WhatsApp and Facebook groups, which have become instrumental in their ventures.
“Our WhatsApp group consists mainly of young farmers, over 100 of us. We share experiences, ask questions and get advice on how to manage diseases and how to do pest management. We also seek best market through the group and on Facebook”
So instrumental is the WhatsApp group, on which extension officers too belong, that Kariuki never struggles to get information about farming.
“We share contacts of companies that sell pesticides and seeds at good prices. My network has grown a lot since I joined the group. For a young farmer, this is the way to go,” says Kariuki.
Leaning against the wooden shed where the cows are eating their forage, Kariuki checks his phone.
He quickly slides with his finger across the screen and shows a picture of coffee beans.
“I posted this picture on our WhatsApp group and asked whether the crop was ready for harvest, and was told to wait for about a month by an experienced farmer.”
Even though Kariuki wouldn’t want to do anything else at the moment, he reckons farming is not always easy.
“The prices are too low, people don’t pay enough for the products and this really needs to change,” he argues.
Then there are also diseases. “Bacterial wilt is the most stubborn. Sometimes you see it when the crop already has roots, and you cannot do anything. The best way to prevent is to have a hygienic farm, especially in the greenhouse, and have the right equipment. Most vulnerable crops are eggplant, tomatoes, cucumber and capsicum.”
He further points out access to capital is limited. “It definitely improved in the last couple of years, but it is still a major challenge to get an affordable loan from the bank to grow business,” says Kariuki as he carries the last boxes with products in the boot of his car.
He luckily has his own vehicle, which enables him to take the produce to the market himself.
His main market is in Nyeri, but some produce he sells in his neighbourhood.
A kilo of tomatoes goes for Sh60 while sukuma wiki Sh20 a bunch and cucumber Sh50 a kilo.
Kariuki points towards a piece of yet undeveloped land next to where the vegetables grow.
“I will soon start growing tomatoes here. People really like tomatoes, we cannot even meet the demand.” He recently employed two boys who assist him on the farm.
Erick Ogumo, the chairman of Society of Crop Agribusiness Advisor (S0CAA), said that farmers can effectively use WhatsApp to network and share information on market, prices, pests and diseases outbreak in addition to mobile consultancy.
“Such networks are good for today’s farmers because they can send photos of pests and diseases to experts for diagnosis and technical advice, making it easier to know in case there is an outbreak of disease,” he said, adding this kind of consultancy, however, requires very skilled agronomists.
How to make the groups work
- WhatsApp group should be backed by the support of experts in diverse fields of agriculture, animal husbandry and horticulture.
- Experts supply information through WhatsApp to the group administrator, who then shares the advice to farmers.
- But that is incase the experts are not part of the group. They can also be.
- The groups enable a free exchange of information among the farmers.