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Covid-19 holiday: It is time to grow our agribusinesses

Saturday August 01 2020
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Dennis Nguma on his pawpaw farm in Makueni County. He is using the break caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to enhance his agribusiness. PHOTO | PIUS MAUNDU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By RICHARD MAOSI
By PIUS MAUNDU

Some two-and-a-half kilometres from Kiondoo trading centre on the busy Nakuru-Nairobi highway, one finds a meandering murram road that leads to the middle-income Modern estate in Lanet.

The skies are clear and the sun is shining bright when the Seeds of Gold team arrives at the home of Ayub Otieno’s parents.

The third-year software engineering student at KCA University in Nairobi is among those who are growing their agribusinesses during the pandemic period as they wait to resume studies. 

He is busy inside a greenhouse, dressed in a yellow overcoat, when we arrive.

“This is where I spend most of my time since we closed in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I decided to lock myself down here,” says Otieno, 20.

“Farming has been my passion since when I was in high school, but this disease has given me the chance do what I love without much distraction,” he adds.

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Otieno farms in two greenhouses out of the four that sit on his parents’ two acres.

“I cultivate tomatoes in one of the structures and the other one hosts capsicum and a few broccoli and lettuce plants.”

He started the project in 2018, soon after completing high school.

“My parents financed me through a Sh200,000 bank loan to set up the first greenhouse from where I cultivated tomatoes,”  he explains.

The money enabled him to buy greenhouse polythene, a drip irrigation system, metal stands and foot installation labour costs.

He did not have water challenges since the family has a borehole. The tomatoes did quite well, making him to plough back the profit into the business and early this year, he set up the second greenhouse using profits from the venture.

“This time I went for a timber greenhouse and inside I erected T-shaped posts with wires running across for supporting the plants. Capsicum plants need to be supported when they are two months old or immediately they start flowering and fruiting.”

WORKED PERFECTLY

He settled on the plant after visiting the Nakuru ASK show in 2019, and later enrolled in an online programme where he learnt more on crop husbandry and agro-marketing.

“But still I sought advice from a crop expert on the best capsicum variety to plant in a greenhouse and did soil testing,” says Otieno, who established a seedbed, nurtured the seedlings and transplanted them into the greenhouse after four weeks.

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Ayub Otieno, a third-year software engineering student at KCA University in Nairobi inside a greenhouse in their farm in Nakuru. He farms in two greenhouses out of the four that sit on his parents’ two acres farm. PHOTOS | RICHARD MAOSI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

A day before transplanting, the capsicum seedlings must be hardened by gradually reducing frequency of watering, and planted at a rectangular spacing of 60 by 30cm along the drip lines.

“The crops are pruned once every week for good growth and to ensure uniformity of the fruits.”

He currently grows three capsicum varieties namely Golden Sun F1 (yellow), Grandisimo F1 (green) and Orange Pepper Glow F1 (orange) because that is what the market wants.

According to him, green capsicum sells the most because it is largely consumed in Lanet. He sells the yellow and orange ones to Woolmatt and Gilanis supermarkets in Nakuru town.

“If well-nurtured, capsicum takes at most two months to mature and harvesting starts after 70 days,” says Otieno, who enrolled at Strathmore University for a data science course using proceeds from the farm.

Every week, Otieno harvests 20 to 25 kilos of capsicum, which he sells at Sh200 each. For tomatoes, he sells a kilo at Sh60.

“Before the pandemic, I used to visit the farm weekly. My mother with the help of workers would care for the crops and it worked perfectly. I also engage an agronomist if need arises."

Edith Wanjiru, an agronomist and farm manager at Kinunju farm in Nakuru, says farmers should beware of root rot disease in case of over-watering, which may kill the plants as they have a shallow root system. Capsicum can be used to make a variety of salads when mixed with onions and tomatoes or cooked in food.

-By Richard Maosi, [email protected]


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Months of bliss on the farm for master’s student

A drive on a dirt road linking Kathonzweni to Mavindini in Makueni County leaves no doubt that pigeon peas have become the agribusiness motif in the semi-arid countryside.

Most farmlands are dotted with the pulses, with a few hosting a combination of the legume and mango trees, another popular crop in the region.

But deviating from this norm is Dennis Nguma, whose farm is located on the outskirts of Mavindini Township, on which he grows dwarf pawpaws.

The 27-year-old final-year master’s student, who farms on his father’s land, is pruning the pawpaw plants when the Seeds of Gold team arrives.

“I had grown watermelons on the same land and chose to experiment with the hybrid pawpaws after a friend recommended them and I am not disappointed,” he says.

The more than  a quarter-acre parcel on which the fruits grow is a meshwork of drip lines, serving some 120 plants, which are heavy with fruits, some ripening.

“This is where I spend my time daily since colleges were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” says the Agricultural and Applied Economics finalist at the University of Nairobi.

Every morning, he goes round the farm scouting for pests and signs of diseases on the plants. He also checks if the drip lines are working and unblocks those that might be clogged. 

Nguma, who holds a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Economics from Egerton University, says the horticulture bug bit him while working as a manager on a farm in Emali.

WATERED REGULARLY

He convinced his father, Jonathan Muoki, to sink a farm pond in one corner of his farmland through a subsidised farm initiative by the county government, and allocate him a plot next to the reservoir.

It is from this pond that Nguma has created an elaborate drip irrigation system he acquired at Sh10,000 to grow the fruits. 

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Dennis Nguma poses with a pawpaw fruit in his farm in Makueni. Each of the 120 plants in his farm produces at least 20 fruits per season. PHOTOS | PIUS MAUNDU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Nguma grows the Malkia F1 variety plants that he first farmed in a seedbed. He then transferred the seedlings into Zai pits measuring two-by-two feet and one foot depth after three months of staying in the nursery and covered the pits with mulch to minimise water loss. 

Hybrid pawpaws produce flowers with both male and female characteristics on each plant, relieving farmers the headache of identifying a male or female tree as in the case of open pollinated varieties.

Mealybugs and red spider mites are some of the pests that attack the fruits, but they are fought with a combination of insecticides, miticides and baits.

“The fruits are normally ready for harvest 10 months after transplanting. They produce thrice every year, provided they are healthy and are watered regularly,” says Nguma.

Each of the 120 plants produces at least 20 fruits per season. “This gives me up to Sh300,000 every year and harvesting continues for three years. I sell each fruit at Sh50,” says Nguma, adding that traders come from Mavindini, Kathonzweni and Wote for the fruits.

-By Pius Maundu, [email protected]

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Making farming attractive

  1. Link farming to social media including activities like marketing and extension services. 
  2. Improve the image of farming, make it appear cool through use of machinery and other appropriate technologies. 
  3. Empower young people who are farming to speak out about their experiences. These youths will act as ambassadors.
  4. Facilitate access to finance and credit. Land is largely a scarce resource to access for many young people, what puts many off. Still, getting credit or capital is a challenge but if assisted, the youth can excel in farming. 
  5. Make agriculture more profitable. This can be done by reducing the cost of farming and doing business through subsidies.
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