Residents of the arid Baringo county are courting the drought resistant aloe vera to earn a living in an area where crops have failed to sprout, and now earning upto Sh20,000 a month from the sale of the sap from the leaves. Besides livestock keeping , the main source of income locally , farmers in the area which enjoys limited rainfall are diversifying to aloe vera production to earn additional money to improve their livelihood.
As men and youth take care of livestock in the expansive county, women and children traverse the district collecting sap from the leaves of the succulent aloe plant. Those who have planted the crop in their farms are usually busy harvesting it. Mr Joseph Ng'etich, who is in-charge of Baringo Aloe-Bio-Enterprise Development Project, says sap from the green plant with thick fleshy leaves is used to make beauty products and medicine.
He said that once the sap is processed, the group uses it to make soaps, shampoos and body creams. The sap is also sold to foreign markets, where it is in high demand. Flowers from the plant produce seeds that are sold at about Sh1,000 a kilogramme. "Our members deliver aloe sap to various collection centres, mainly in Loruk and Kolowa within the county," said Mr Ng'etich.
He adds: "Apart from the beauty products, we boil the sap, let it cool and harden, and then pack it in 50-kg sacks ready for the market."
He says that whereas the beauty products have a ready market locally, the farmers rely mainly on a Chinese trader to purchase the dried sap.
"The Chinese trader buys the sap at Sh150 per kilo but most farmers demand between Sh300 and Sh400 per kilo if the business is to be meaningful," he said.
Consequently, low prices discourage many farmers from expanding the acreage under the crop despite its low production expenses.
He adds that the plant doesn't require weeding and spraying with chemicals. Also, livestock don't feed on it. Once planted, it can be harvested every five months for more than 20 years.
Mr Ng'etich says the major challenge that has seen many farmers ask for additional pay is the process of squeezing sap from the plant and processing it into the final product. "We require drums and fire wood. After filling half a drum with the sap, we boil it for three hours then pour it into an open container in a shaded place to dry for 30 minutes."
"The liquid must boil to a level that facilitates solidification. Once the liquid is thick enough, it is removed from the fireplace and poured into an open container to cool." "It turns into solid form in about 30 minutes. We then break it into small pieces and pack it in sacks, ready for transportation to the market."
Mr Ng'etich says Kenya can produce enough gum from aloe vera for both local and foreign markets if farmers are given proper incentives.
"When exported, the produce fetches good returns as it is sold in grammes. This is why we are asking for better prices," said Mr Andrew Rumenya, the Kimalel location chief who also cultivates aloe vera on a one-acre piece of land.
He says farmers can realise good returns if proper investment in machines to help in squeezing out juice from the plant. "Extracting sap manually is cumbersome. That is why many farmers realise just a few litres from a day's work. Machines would simplify the work," he said. He adds that the plant thrives in dry, lowland areas and would do well in Kenya's arid and semi-arid regions where it could supplement livestock production.
The aloe-bio-enterprise, which has spread to every location in the county, started in 2004, with funding from the European Union. First to be constructed was the Koriema Nursery and Factory in the area to process aloe vera.
In 2009, the group was issued with an operation permit by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), which has jurisdiction over the aloe plant. Thereafter, there was signing of a deal between KWS and the county council of Baringo on the processing and marketing of aloe products.
Mr Daniel Kamau, the technical field officer of the Community Development Trust Fund -- who are funding the project in conjunction with the European Union -- says the factory will be fully operational soon after they pumped in over Sh3 million to upgrade the facilities.
"We will then enter into an agreement with marketing agents for farmers to realise better prices," he said.