Farmer who abandoned maize for sunflower has no regrets

Julius Limo, a  small-holder farmer from Simatwet village, some 800m away along the busy Eldoret-Kitale highway, defied the maize growing trend that is popular in the region, to focus on sunflower cultivation, and his effort is paying off.
The sunflower plants on Mr. Limo's four-acre farm are meticulously arranged and their smiling faces appear to be mocking the old-fashioned perception that maize is the only profitable crop in the region.
"I produce up to 1600kgs of sunflower seeds per acre every season, earns me an average of Sh40,000-50,000,’’ said the 44 year old father of three as he kept tossing some dry sunflower seeds he had earlier picked from a gunny bag in his store.
In a good year, Mr. Limo confirmed that the crop gives him up to Sh600,000, an amount he could only dream of three years ago when he was inter-cropping maize and beans.
"I now have a pick up car, a decent house and I effortlessly pay school fees for my three daughters, thanks for these big flowers,’’ he said.
Conditions for growth
Mr. Limo explained that sunflower grows well in low acidic soils of soil pH 6-7. After sampling his soil in 2013, it was found to be 5.8 and he was advised to mix wood ash into his soil to keep down its acidity level. Through intensive research, workshops and lessons from established sunflower farmers in the region, he was able to learn about the various varieties of the crop, among them Kenya Fedha, Mammoth, Sunbeam, Teddy Bear among other.
"I grow Mammoth sunflower here because they got bigger heads, and produce more seeds, which is my primary target," he said.
"Mammoth seeds have a small surface area hence more mass and are more fatty,’’ explained Limo, an Agribusiness Management graduate from Egerton University.
Market power
Limo, together with 11 other sunflower farmers around Moi’s Bridge area pile up their harvests and bulk sell them to Bidco, a leading oil refinery company in Kenya especially in edible oils. "We sell them a kilogram of dry Sunflower seeds at Sh32, which is Sh4-5 higher than what middlemen offer to individual smallholder farmers, who lack a bargaining power due to their small yield," he said.
Production costs 
Limo grows the crop thrice in a year hence earning more compared to maize, which he only grew twice per year. There are fewer sunflower farmers in the country than are needed to meet the demand from oil companies.
Limo normally plants 2Kgs of certified sunflower seeds per acre, with a kilogram of seed retailing at an average price of Sh150. Instead of using synthetic phosphate fertilizers like ammonium phosphate, Limo prefers using farmyard manure, which he says does not damage the soil and is inexpensive. 
He, however, warns that sunflower requires tender care and frequent weeding,  hence labour intensive compared to other popularcrops like maize.
Sun flower can either be planted in planted in shallow furrows or broadcast, but Limo prefers line planting to obtain uniform results and avoid wastage. He approximates that tilling the land costs him KSh1500 per acre. He also pays KSh1000 for fine digging per acre,  KSh3000 for weeding per acre. He also pays farmhands  KSh3,000 per acre to harvest the crop.
Value addition
The farmer who used to get less than Sh300,000 per year while growing maize and beans in the same piece of land that is earning him slightly over Sh500,000 is now planning to start producing his sunflower oil in the next two years, once he consolidates enough funds to buy a modern oil processor. "It is a pity that a sunflower farmer like me competes with the rest of Kenyans to purchase sunflower oil in retail stores for as much as Sh300 per litre yet I sell the raw product at less than KSh50 per kilogram,’’ said Limo.
Besides selling seeds, Limo makes fodder from sunflower leaves and husks, which he sells to dairy farmers in the region.