Kenyan farmers are warming up to growing hibiscus commercially, inspired by their Ugandan counterparts who have grown income threefold from the therapeutic plant, as health conscious consumers drive local and international beverage companies into a product diversification binge.
Though hibiscus is largely available in Kenya, it only grows wildly with farmers never having found commercial purpose for it. But now the roaring success by Ugandan farmers from the North has now drawn a group of farmers from Matayos division of Busia district to commercial cultivation albeit at a pilot level.
Over 2000 Ugandan farmers abandoned the poorly performing maize and cotton production in 2007 and have since drawn consistent income from the flowering plant whose returns farmers say stand at three times more than conventional crops on half an acre piece of land.
It all started in 2002 when a UK farmer Charles Irving developed an interest to find the optimum growing conditions for hibiscus in Pan Africa which led him to the fertile soils around Lake Kyoga in Uganda, near Lake Victoria, where he presented the idea to local producers who embraced the idea spot on.
In order to spread the benefits of hibiscus production, Irving decided from the outset to involve as many farmers as possible. From small beginnings, his company Ibis Organics with its sister company in Uganda, Nile Teas, started contracting smallholder farmers to grow hibiscus over a combined area of 80 hectares near the Lake.
In the first year of production, each farmer dedicates a maximum of 1000 sq m or 0.1 ha to hibiscus to ensure it does not encroach upon land normally used for food crops. In subsequent years, and in exceptional circumstances, the area may be increased marginally, but only after careful evaluation.
Each producer has been trained in sustainable agriculture, from crop rotation, tree planting and composting, to biological control of pests and disease to maximise yields and comply with strict organic standards. Once harvested, the hibiscus is dried and loaded onto otherwise empty cargo ships returning to the UK, where it is sweetened with grape juice, bottled and sold to supermarkets.
But it was only a matter of time before soft drink companies on an brand expansion binge realized the growing market for healthy drinks. With market demand for organic products rising soft manufacturers were knocking on farmers' doors for raw material. One such company is Britania Allied Industries in Kampala, one of the biggest names in the East African juice market, whose brand Simply Hibi manufactured from hibiscus is now offered as part of the ‘Splash’ range of juices through existing Splash distributors across East Africa. It is among the most favourite among consumers with three out of six juice ranges from the company bought being Simply Hibi. The company manufacturers over 8 different varieties under the Splash name.
“Through farmer visits we have seen how this plant that we take for granted here has lifted Ugandan farmers out of poverty and more buyers keep chasing the farmers. We have swathes of land that can accommodate the plant here and are hoping to convince more farmers to embrace it so that the big numbers can attract buyers,” says Joe Musibi one of the farmers trialing hibiscus farming.
Native to Angola, Hibiscus use has a long and varied tradition in Africa. In Kenya it is used to attract pollinators like bees while in the Nile Delta it is used to flavour non-alcoholic festive drinks and in southern Sudan it is used to add colour and flavour to herbal teas. In Egypt and Sudan, hibiscus is used to help maintain a normal body temperature, support heart health, and encourage fluid balance. North Africans have used hibiscus internally for supporting upper respiratory health including the throat throat and also use it topically to support skin health. Hibiscus is especially favourite with health conscious consumers for its many healthy benefits. Due to its high amounts of antioxidants, it lowers blood pressure, reduces cholesterol levels and decreases the chances of developing heart disorders. The antioxidants also reduce the risk of developing cancer while boosting the immune system and can helping in weight loss.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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