Onions bring tears of joy in Mandera

Friday November 22 2019
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Ali Harrow (left) on his onion farm in Mandera County. With him is Adan Alaso an agricultural officer in the county. Harrow uses a diesel generator to pump water from River Daua along the Kenya-Ethiopia into furrows on his farm. PHOTO | MANASSEH OTSIALO | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Ali Harrow has been a crop farmer in Mandera County since 1995, but it is in 2005 that he realised on which crop money grows in the dryland.

The farmer recalls that he visited a friend and realised his onions were doing well despite the tough climate.

“I have been growing onions since then on 14 acres and I don’t regret because the crop does very well in this climate.”

He uses a diesel generator to pump water from River Daua along the Kenya-Ethiopia into furrows on his farm.

“Onions are easy to grow, they are hardy, strong and have a steady market as they are always used in cooking. They come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colours, with each having a different taste,” says Harrow, who grows the Hagar mud variety.

As many other farmers in Mandera, Harrow relies on county government tractors to till his farm, what sometimes interferes with his farming schedule.


He grows the crop first in a nursery before transferring to the main field. Diseases such as onion neck rot and white rot, both which are fungal, and are common in Mandera.

Neck rot can be cured by fungicides but white rot has no cure and the whole crop remains stunted, says Bernard Ogutu, the county director of agriculture.


Besides the diseases, farmers grapple with onion flies and onion thrips. The flies eat roots and bulbs of onions, but this can be controlled by intercropping the plant with carrots.

“Thrips are common in hot, arid areas like this one. They reduce production or even kill the whole crop by sucking sap from it. Regular spraying of onions with a pesticide is the best way to control pests,” says Harrow, who is happy growing the crop. According to Ogutu, not all onions do well in the semi-arid county.

“It is only the Hagar mud variety sourced from Yemen that is doing well and has high yields locally. It is also resistant to diseases and has a longer shelf-life,” he says of the variety brought into the country via the nearby Somalia.

Red creole and Bombay red varieties were tested and failed to grow in the area due to their poor resistance to diseases, he says.

Onions are ready for harvest in four months after transplanting and the harvesting should be done on a sunny day leaving room for roots to dry and die, according to Adan Alaso, an agricultural officer.

“One should let the onion tops fall and leave the bulbs in the ground for another 10 to 12 days for them to mature fully,” he says, but cautions they should not stay longer in the soil because they become prone to diseases that make them rot during storage, or start growing again. If you harvest them in moist conditions, they won’t cure well and this reduces the shelf-life, which is up to four to six weeks,” says Alaso.

Harrow, who employs six workers, harvests an average of 300 tonnes of onions from his 14 acres and sells the produce in markets in Moyale, Wajir, Garissa, Nairobi and Mombasa at between Sh30 and Sh45 wholesale price.