Vanguard farmers in Western Kenya are now reaping the benefits of growing sugar cane with indigenous vegetables, with the vegetables insulating them from the erratic cane market while increasing fertility in their soils.
The indigenous vegetables were a favourite among farmers in especially Mumias and Bungoma area in the 60's occupying on average three quarter of household's crop production. But with the coming of Mumias Sugar Company and the promise of 'hefty pay' for those who would clear their land and cultivate sugarcane, virtually every farmer abandoned the greens. “The promise was attractive, and the first few years were the best for all sugarcane farmers. This became an incentive to even the farmers who had reservations about going the sugar cane way. But it was to be short lived,”said Humphrey Wekesa a 65 year old farmer who has seen the highs and lows of both sugar cane farming and indigenious vegetable cultivation.
The commercialization of the sugarcane cultivation saw about 68 percent of land in Western shift to sugarcane production and the number of those who stuck to the indigenous vegetable production dismally drop to just 4 percent. The situation became so dire that some highly priced, highly nutritious vegetables like vine spinach became extinct.
But a litany of complaints started cropping up with sugarcane blamed for dwindling soil fertility and poor and late pay by the cane company and brokers. Farmers had to revert to the only holy grail that placed food on their table; indigenous vegetables. But while the practice, which is now gaining grounds across Western Kenya, is paying off farmers havent abandoned sugarcane farming yet, but with the help of researchers are intercropping sugarcane with the vegetables.
While the average farmer owns an acre of land, making the most of it has been every farmer's wish, which has now seen this new form of intercropping now attract over 400,000 farmers. Virginia Nelima is one such farmer. For the last fifteen years she has stuck to cane farming. But dwindling returns have meant a change of attitude, and eventually of income. While sugarcane used to cater to her and her family's needs late payments and the volatile market saw her adopt the intercropping method. Now she sells the vegetables to local stores and hospitals where the demand has ballooned, thanks to their nutritional value. “In my half an acre of land I manage to harvest over 20 kilos of the vegetables which I sell to a supermarket nearby at Sh150 a kilo. That is income enough for my family, to feed, cloth and educate my children and I dont have to desperately rely on delayed payments for sugarcane that I deliver to Mumias,”said Nelima a single mother of two.
She grows spider plant, amaranth, jute mallow, black night shade, crotalaria and cowpeas which are now the most grown traditional vegetables here, thanks in part to their fast maturity.
While sugarcane takes up to two years to mature, vegetables take only three months. Vegetables can be planted in single or double rows between the lines of sugarcane. The vegetables are harvested before the sugarcane becomes leafy and shades the ground, forming what is called a canopy. According to John Wanyonyi a researcher in the area, if a farmer plants sugarcane today, tomorrow they should plant the vegetables. This is because at seven months, the sugarcane forms a canopy and the shade affects the vegetables.
Intercropping has also assisted the farmers halve the effects of soil erosion. The vegetables form a cover and hold water. In this way, they prevent rain from washing the soil away.
On average Wanyonyi estimates that those in the intercropping model have grown income by upto 30 percent.
Written by Alice Muriranja for African Laughter
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