Inside a rectangular building in Tunyai, Tharaka Nithi County, five workers dressed in white and green overcoats, matching caps and gloves and plastic shoes are busy arranging packed produce.
In another section of the building, three more are spreading ginger and hibiscus tea leaves on a dryer to ensure nothing goes wrong, while in yet another section, two are putting labels on boxes, which are destined for the export market
“Welcome to Meru Herbs,” Andrew Botta, the projector coordinator at the institution says, before he takes us on a tour of the firm.
Meru Herbs grows and processes various organic products for the export market.
However, the community project is like the proverbial prophet, who is little appreciated at home but feted abroad.
“Over 90 per cent of our products that include Carcade/Roselle or Hibiscus tea, herbs such as lemon grass, ginger and chamomile and jams made from mango, papaya, lemon, guava, papaya and pineapple are for the export market. We grow them organically,” says Botta.
While they grow some of the produce on their three acres, they also only source from various contracted organic farmers.
They buy fruits at between Sh25 and Sh50 per kilo, depending on the season. On the other hand, hibiscus goes for Sh30 fresh per kilo, chamomile Sh60 and lemon grass at Sh25. Once harvested, the produce is sorted, graded and weighed as high hygiene standards are maintained.
“We process the fruits into either syrup or small cuttings, which we bottle with natural preservatives such as lemon juice. For the herbs, we dry and package or mix them with black tea, which we source from Imenti Tea Factory,” explains Botta.
The products are exported through Fair Trade channels to Japan, Italy, France, Austria, Germany, Scotland and Canada.
Botta traces the start of the institution in the semi-arid region to establishment of a domestic water project dubbed Ng’uuru Gakirwe Water Project (NGWP) in 1990 by the Catholic Diocese of Meru in collaboration with the Italian government.
“The project was initiated to cater for the community’s water needs, which saw residents start growing food under irrigation,” he says.
With sufficient water, an Italian who has lived in Kenya for years encouraged some farmers to start growing Carcade (Hibiscus sabdariffa), his initial goal being to help farmers in the drought-prone areas to earn some income. Some 430 farmers heeded the call.
"Farming Carcade marked the beginning of Meru Herbs,” he says. “We started the institution in 1991 as a cooperative society for members of the water irrigation project.”
The members later established a savings and credit cooperative society to fill a gap in financing and keep their earnings safe by offering members a place to deposit savings and provide low interest loans.
Meru Herbs is under the trusteeship of the Catholic Diocese of Meru and is still a key part of the project, as they share the management.
“Though we source the produce locally, we get some of key materials from outside Kenya. For instance, we source glass packaging jar from Egypt, jar lids from South Africa and tea bags from France,” says Botta. To export organic produce, Botta says one must have various certifications.
EASY TO GROW
But before that, they must ensure their crops are chemical-free.
“The produce is grown without inorganic fertilisers or chemical pesticides. This helps to keep them natural. Organic farming also ensures preservation of the environment.”
They have international certification from Ecocert, an organisation based in France but are currently seeking others to grow their business internationally.
“For one to get certified, they have to wait for two years of conversion from non-organic to organic. The farm is inspected annually to ensure that it adheres to set standards.”
Meru Herbs MD Sally Sawaya says the secret to selling abroad is to produce quality goods.
“Most local consumers perceive organic products as high-end and expensive but we are working to sell more of our produce locally.”
Jerop Birech, an associate professor from the Department of Soil, Crops and Horticulture at Egerton University says one should start with produce that is easy to grow, adding that herbs such as rosemary naturally keep off pests.
The society works with a group of organic certified farmers who grow the herbs and fruits.
They also have an internal control system and an extension officer who visits the farmers and ensures crops are grown according to standards.
Once ready, each farmer harvests their produce and takes it to the factory.
A group of women then prepares the herbs by shelling, cutting and drying, depending on the type of herb.
The herbs are then processed in the tea factory while the fruits are processed in the jam factory located next to each other.