Strong demand for aromatic herbs is currently being undersupplied in Kenya, opening an opportunity for farmers in arid and semi arid areas, according to commercial herb buyers.
Herbs such as sage, lavender and marjoram all thrive with minimum rainfall, said Grace Mbuthia, Horticulture Officer at the Horticulture Crops Development Authority (HCDA). “They require rainfall of about 600 to 700 millimeter per year and the farmer only has to target the onset of rainy season when planting,” she said.
Josephine Nasimiyu, also of the HCDA, said the over emphasis on vegetables has over the years led to a negligence of aromatic herbs, which are easy to farm and can do well in harsh conditions.
“Herbs are an orphaned crop, neglected by even the stakeholders. We won’t advice all farmers to abandon what they are doing and start farming herbs, but if any farmer farms it, it’s rewarding,” she said.
A growing European appetite for chives, a herb that belongs to the onion family, has opened a window of opportunity for Kenyan farmers. rescuscitating a crop that made farmers rich overnight in the 1980's.
Back then, farmers invested heavily in the herb to supply Indian companies, but the closure of some of those industries saw farmers with nowhere else to sell the herb. However, now the general demand for chives is climbing rapidly.
The demand in Europe has climbed by an average 6 to 8 per cent a year since 2002, making it the favourite across the entire basket of herbs, which includes parsley, basil, rocket, and coriander, and now seeing farmers from Eastern and Western Province planting the herb as agents pitch tent to cash in on this demand.
Ayub Kithe from Kieni said that he only initially planted a small amount of chives, but the returns from the first batch he exported convinced him to now go full throttle into chive farming. “ I was among the 30 farmers from Eastern province who were the pioneers in the export, when an exporting company convinced us to invest in the herb since there was ready market for it. They bought a kilo of the herb at Sh350,” he said. Which was a far better price than he is currently getting for any other crop.
Cretonise Ltd, a Canadian horticultural company involved in the export of chives said the potential for Kenyan farmers to cash in on the herb is immense, but stiff competition from West African farmers was something they were grappling with. “Farming there has been fully entrenched and the market there is solidified because they have been doing this for a long time. But the demand from Europe has convinced us to look East which is why we came to Kenya. The pay at the moment is an incentive, which we hope will draw more farmers into this,” said Joram Antos a project manager with Cretonise. Already the firm has some 500 farmers growing the herb in both Central and Eastern Kenya.
A viable chive project requires at least 4 hectares of greenhouse tunnels, which have the capacity to produce 180-200 tonnes of chives per season. Each tunnel is normally 850 sqm, but one can use smaller tunnels. The growing season for chives is 7 to 8 months, depending on the climatic conditions, after which the land can be rotated with other crops, providing farmers with additional income. Chives are perennial in the garden and grow approximately 12 inches (30 cm) tall. They are extremely easy to grow, are drought tolerant, rarely suffer from disease or pest problems, and don't require fertiliser, but do need at least five to eight hours of sunlight a day, and well-drained, organic, fertile soil.
Chives can also tend to get overcrowded so they need digging and dividing every three to four years.
According to Hezzy Lala, an agronomist, chives planted between rows of peas or tomatoes also work to control the incidence of aphids, which are a major problem for tomatoes.
Chives are grown for their leaves, which are used to provide a mild onion-like flavour to culinary dishes. The flowers are sometimes also used to garnish dishes, with the stems also often used semi-decoratively, for tying up small bundles of vegetables for appetisers. Chives are rich in vitamins A and C, potassium, and calcium, and their violet flowers are also often used in ornamental dry bouquets.
Romanian Gypsies have also long used chives in fortune telling, and it is widely believed that bunches of dried chives hung around a house will ward off disease and evil.
The herb can be found fresh at most markets year-round. They can also be dry-frozen without much impairment to the taste, giving home growers the opportunity to store large quantities harvested from their own gardens.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
Vegetables and herbs that were traditionally farmed by native communities around the Mau forest as an important ingredient in Kenyan cooking are making a comeback in local markets, thanks in part to a group of women now supplying nettles to hotels in Rift Valley that specialises in indigenous cuisine like Mukimo, a Kikuyu favourite.
The women have been transplanting wild nettle seedlings into seedbeds on land where they once grazed livestock. The plant does well in highlands at altitudes of 2000 to 3000 meters, taking around two months to produce leaves that are harvested manually from March to June and during September and October. The nettle plant can be harvested whole if young. But when plants are older, only tender leaves are picked.
The farmers then immerse the nettles in water after harvesting to soften the sting and sell them fresh in the market, or they dry the leaves on sisal sacks in the shade for 8 to 12 hours and then grind them. The shade matters, as drying the leaves in direct sun interferes with the attractive bright green colour where the nutrients are. But it is the dried nettle leaves that are delivering the best returns.
While a bundle of 10 fresh nettle leaves sells for Sh10 to Sh20 in the local market, where it competes with other vegetables that customers are used to, the ground powder of 10 nettle leaves goes for triple that, at Sh50, “due to the many uses for the powder, which include being added to tea, almost any food including ugali and chapatti, and for children who shy away from the leaves themselves,” explained Ruth Githae, one of the nettle farmers.
With seed capital of just Sh10,000 and an investment of less than Sh5,000 in manure and water for the time it takes for the nettle to blossom, the Molo women are recording returns of up to Sh30,000 per harvest on each quarter acre, with their markets spanning hospitals, hotels, schools, local supermarkets and homes for the elderly.
Ladislas Owino a nurse at St Mathius Mulumba home for the elderly, which cares for over 100 elderly people, is a regular buyer of the powdered nettle, which she says is a feasible alternative to expensive supplements.
“The nettle powder is so nutritious and cost effective at the same time, especially because we add it in porridge and other foods that are a must for the aged and you only need a small portion to meet the nutritional requirement that is required for the patient,” she said. Sh1,000 of nettle powder is enough to cater for four patients for a week, adding the powder to three meals a day, and is far cheaper than the supplements and greens for the aged that the home used to buy.
However, as the demand for the nettle has risen, with word spreading on its health benefits, the women have found it difficult to keep increasing production capacity and to raise the quality of packaging. Grinding a sack full of nettle leaves with rudimental grinding methods, such as a stone carved to grind, takes on average 8-10 hours and plenty of energy.
This challenge in upping output has seen the women move into partnership with a local cooperative that is in the process of securing a modern grinding machine, “which will not only increase the amount of leaves we grind because we have a lot to grind, but will also allow us to move into packaging the products in a wholesale format and spread our market wider,” said Ruth.
Nettles have long been known to possess medicinal value aiding the lungs, kidneys, skin, and blood. The herb has also been recognised for its ability to stop bleeding, relieve mucous congestion and water retention, and improve skin irritations, and is considered to be an excellent blood purifier.
Tea mixed with nettle powder has also been known to increase the milk flow of nursing mothers as well as being an excellent gargle for mouth and throat infections. The dried leaves are also used to feed farm animals. Mixed with chicken feed, they increase egg production while increasing milk production in cows. They have also been known to produce a glossier coat for both feather and fur.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
In addition to the scant need for rainfall, herbs do not need any kind of pesticide spraying and mature after only 2 months.
“Herbs are a domesticated crop and their wild nature makes them withstand harsh conditions,” said Nasimiyu.
“Most of the herbs have medicinal value and also can be used as spices,” said nasimiyu. They also have other uses.
“A herb like Lavendor is an insect repellant and that is a very important, it makes it a multipurpose plant,” said Grace.
To promote the herbs, the HCDA has dedicated stands at shows to herb farming and distributed guidance documents to farmers. “Currently, herbs are being farmed in bits and pieces and we want to improve the situation,” said Nasimiyu.
Tropical Heat is one of the companies processing herbs in Kenya, dealing with several herbs, including sage, which it packages in dried form and distribute through different outlets including supermarkets. A 250g pouch of sage sells for Sh497 in leading supermarkets, while the 20g is Sh20.
“Demand for sage is not very high compared to herbs like oregano, rosemary and mixed herbs,” said Margaret Ngea, Marketing Manager of Deepa Industries Ltd ( Tropical Heat),
However, most of the herbs processed are currently imported from South Africa. “For example, we import sage from South Africa and as I have told you demand for sage is not very high like other herbs, we only import about 150kg of sage on average every month,” she said.
In addition to the underproduction, Margaret cites the issue of quality in the production and preparation of herbs.
“In Kenya, our farmers do not have good facilities for removing moisture out of sage,” she adds
Some of the common usages of herbs are as condiments to flavour dishes or for making herb teas. Herbs also have many medicinal values, for example sage is said to improve and boost memory and is good for children.“Sage is rich in vitamin A and calcium, which are extremely important for the growth of teeth, bones and skin,” said Margaret.
Farmers can buy the seeds, seedlings or use cuttings from already developed herb plants. “Seeds are readily available in most of the leading Agro vets and it’s not very expensive,” said Josephine. “Seedlings costs about Sh20 per seedlings while 100 grams of herbs costs about Sh150.”
Most herbs are sold dried and therefore do not have the same strict standards as for other fruits and vegetables. “Over 60 per cent of herbs are sold dried and the moisture content is the only requirement made by KEBS to issue the permit.”
Written by Galgallo Fayo for African Laughter
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