A group of farmers in Kirinyaga district of Central Kenya have ventured into a rare kind of farming targeted at both local and international markets, rearing and selling chameleons. Kirinyaga eco tourism Self Help Group, with 15 members, moved into chameleon farming as a way of diversifying, but is still grappling with the challenge of accessing the international market with its high-class product.
The venture, set up three years ago, is now selling some 2000 chameleon a year to the local market. “The majority of Kenyans have expressed interest in keeping the chameleons as pets and for beauty in their houses. It hasn’t been altogether easy, as we have been forced to deal with busting the dominant myths about chameleons, including that chameleon’s saliva is very poisonous and can kill you instantly. Luckily, the majority of these clients have responded to what we have told them and are now demanding more chameleons,” said Stephen Kabuthi the secretary of the group who doubles up as the publicity person.
Agropreneurs are halving irrigation and getting better results during dry spells thanks to a new product that is creating water storage sacks at the roots of crops.
The water polymer, known as Belsap, comes as granules that are added to the soil at planting time, but which expand by up to 400 times their original size during rains, storing water that they then release, together with nutrients, during dry spells.
The granules are thoroughly mixed with the soil, but only a pinch needs to be applied. Once exposed to moisture, the granules transform into gel or crystals, as they take in the surrounding water.
The performance of these expanded water-containing gels among farmers who cultivate crops as diverse as wheat, sorghum and horticultural crops has been uniform and impressive, with crops gaining the strength to produce more tillers - shoots that grow from the bottom of the original stalk.
Quality Farm Produce, which occupies some 80 hectares, 10 km from Nyeri town has began using the granules for growing horticulture produce. With Nyeri set some 1800m above sea level, its conditions can be similar to semi-arid regions, said the farm’s manager, David Wainaina.
“This means that water is a big issue here, especially considering that the tender stem broccoli and the runner beans we plant use a lot of water,” he said.
The tender stem broccoli alone consumes up to 40m3 of water per hectare per day. But Wainaina reports that the farm is now only needing to irrigate the crop three days a week, as opposed to irrigating daily as it did previously.
Moreover, the farm has found that the roots of a week-old broccoli plant grown using Belsap are 5cm long, which is 3cm longer than plants grown without the polymer at the same stage of germination.
The water polymer has also helped in preventing leaching, where fertilizers are washed away from the soil around plants. Belsap does not substitute for the use of fertilizer, said Mr Wainaina, but can be applied with the seed and fertilizer, all in the same slot at the same time.
Jean Njiru, the national sales manager of Bell Industries Limited, the company importing the polymer into Kenya from the US, said that approximately 8kg of Belsap is needed per hectare of land - depending on the type of crop and soil.
Once in the soil, Belsap repeatedly absorbs moisture and stores it. Since roots respond to the moisture, they will grow toward and around the gel. The compound can stay in the soil for seven years if not disturbed.
Although the water polymer has been in Kenya for only three years, it has been in use in the developed world for 40 years, where it is used in many ways in addition to its use in agriculture. It is often added to the soil of potted plants, under lawns and in areas growing grass for as livestock fodder.
Written By Bob Koigi for African Laughter
The international market is already buying from established chameleon firms in Madagascar and Tanzania, which have become now well established in the chameleon market. Statistics from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) place the export figures from Madagascar at 66,500 chameleons from five different species.
“But we have had a hard time trying to look for an international market for our chameleons and we have even tried a hand in online marketing, but every time we get an international buyer before we can organize ourselves, someone else manages to sell their chameleons before us,” explained Kabuthi. This has left the farmers with an oversupply of chameleons, which they are sometimes forced to release back to the forest.
Chameleon rearing requires meticulous attention and constant monitoring, which may explain why the majority of farmers shy away from the business. Most chameleons feed on insects and so require a natural environment to ensure insects are available. The group, for example, has to place rotten food inside the rearing cot to attract insects for the chameleons to feed on. Chameleons also feed on locusts and grasshoppers “meaning we have to also put anything that a locust likes feeding on, so that it will attract locusts, which will then be eaten by the chameleon,” said Kabuthi.
The farmers have also grappled with the sensitive climatic conditions for the chameleons. During cold seasons, the chameleons tend to die, with Kabuthi explaining that for every cold month since they started the rearing they lose 50 to 100 chameleons. Chameleons are also cannibals, with male chameleons feeding on the young ones, meaning the young must be separated from the adults immediately they are born. A female chameleon gives birth to 8 to 30 young at a time and can give birth three times a year.
To discourage continuous bleeding Kabuthi advises those rearing chameleons to sprinkle salty water on leaves, “when they drink salty water, it reduces their fertility rate and this is important for those who wants to use chameleons as pets in their homes,” he said.
Farmers rearing chameleons must also get authorisation from the Kenya Wildlife Services whose officials first have to survey the land where the chameleons will be reared to ensure it is conducive and it won’t open up chances of human wildlife conflict. KWS also determines the number of chameleons that can be reared based on the size of land. The Chief Licensing Officer then issues a permit to the applicant.
Officers from KWS also carry periodic visits to the farm to monitor the progress of the chameleons and to educate the farmers on how best to tend to them.
To export chameleons, farmers also have to get additional authorisation from KWS to meet CITES requirements and fulfill the exporting requirements of the country they are exporting to.
The most sought after breed of chameleon, which is also predominant in Kenya, is the Jackson's chameleon, which is a woodland/montane forest species that exists over a range of mid- to high elevations of central Kenya and isolated regions of Tanzania, often coexisting with humans on farms and suburban parks.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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