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    Women group finds competitive edge in traditional vegetables

    A group of enterprising farmers in Kericho County are riding on the growing demand for traditional vegetables, having now expanded acreage under cultivation and ventured into value addition activities like processing vegetable flour.

    Toroch Gaa Women Self Help group was founded in 2008 and comprises of 25 members who, apart from growing traditional vegetables, deals with other economic activities including running posho Mills in the area.

    According to the officials Mrs. Christine Rop and Mrs. Beatrice Singen said they specialize in growing various types of vegetables including Spider Plant, African Nightshade commonly referred to as Managu and various types of Ammaranthus vegetables.

    The officials said the leaves of Managu are in high demand and are eaten as cooked vegetable or mixed with other vegetables.  Some varieties are preferred for their bitter taste while others are considered "sweet" after being boiled and the water discarded.

    Solanum species that are common in Kenya's vegetable gardens include Solanum Macrocarpon, S. S.Scabrun and S. Villosum.

    Mrs Rop who is a school teacher explained, "we ventured into the traditional vegetable business because of the huge market which was there all over the district and beyond. In fact we are not able to supply a bigger area, not even Chepseon market as our vegetables are bought at our local trading centre of Momoniat."

    Their nearest markets include Chepseon which is about four kilometres away or the bigger one of Kericho town, about 20, kilometres away.

    They sell a handful of the vegetables at Sh20 but those who are lucky and especially elderly villagers, to visit the farm can purchase at farmgate price of Sh10, a price which they discourage.
     
    According to the duo, they started the business after they realized a big shortage of the traditional delicacies in their homes and the local hotel.   They realized they could make money supplying the hotels which were paying dearly for the delicacies.

    Although they are yet to supply a wider area, the venture has created awareness of the possibility of producing the crops in large scale.  Mrs. Singen who also operates business at Momoniat trading centre, says the returns from a small parcel of land under the vegetables was triple that one under maize crop which is widely grown in the region.
    "We can grow vegetables two to three times in one year, while maize is only grown once a year. We also earn more as compared to the maize crop," she said at their farm.

    The group expanded their venture after benefiting from Sh120,000 from the Njaa Marufuku Kenya (NMK) initiative.

    They credit officials from the ministry of agriculture in Kipkelion and officers who deal in organic farming from the local Catholic Church Diocese of Kericho, who have been in the forefront in encouraging and giving them technical advice.

    One of the agricultural officials is Mr Caleb Kirui who has guided them to grasp the techniques of growing the crop and tackling other challenges.

    The group started with the purchase of 25 grams sachets of seedlings at a cost of Sh50. In one round they purchase seedlings worth Sh500.

    According to the Kericho district crops officer Mr. Nicholas Ruto, in the case of Managu ,plants are propagated from seeds. Seeds are marketed by Simlaw Seeds under the name "Black Night-shade" while others were from sacred Africa in Bungoma,Western Kenya.

    The crops officer advised that the soil in the nursery should be loosened and enriched with decomposed manure. It is urged that seeds should be mixed with sand or ash for uniform sowing. The mixture is then thinly sowed either by broadcasting or in rows, 15-20 centimetres apart and then covered with a thin layer of soil.

    After sowing the bed should be mulched with tall grass or other materials to retain moisture. This mulch can be removed when the plants are 3 cm in height, "he says. Seeds are transplanted when the plants have six leaves and are between 10 - 15 cm tall. Spacing should be 20cm in the row by 40 cm between the rows. The crop is ready for harvest four weeks from transplanting where the stems are cut approximately 15 cm from the ground to allow new side shoots to grow. Picking is done at weekly intervals.

    The black Nightshade is trans-planted to a more spacious area while, Sagek and Ammaranthus are left to grow in the initial grounds where they were sown.

    Toroch Gaa members revealed that in previous seasons they had managed to sell the crops worth of over Sh10,000 in one harvest after three months. Because they do not keep accounting records, they estimate to have made sales worth thousands of shillings since they began growing vegetables three years ago.

    But they predicted sales this year will be low due to prolonged drought that affected the country and especially Kipkelion district which receives less rainfall than the other parts of Kericho county. The benefits to the group have been immense. From getting capital to purchase petty household goods, several group members have used the member to pay school fees.
    Although we have not made major sales at once, the returns have enabled several of us to meet our local needs, "said Singen.

    Apart from the monetary value the women say they have managed to meet their families' nutritional needs. Also they have eliminated a culture of begging for vegetables which is common in the villages as now other women are forced to purchase from them instead of borrowing.

    The culture of a woman volunteering to assist you weeds the vegetables in exchange for a handful of the crop is gone. She has to buy because we are able to weed our farms as a group, "said Rop. Toroch Gaa group use traditional or organic manure/compost while planting the crops. They gather dung from cowsheds, and those of
    sheep, goats and chicken.

    We realized that manure from these animals was the best and gave us desired results and we have not had any reason to purchase artificial fertilizer, “said Rop. But they are ready to utilize artificial fertilizer in some fields which they say its fertility has been exhausted by years of cultivation.

    The biggest challenge they identified is weeding which must be done in a period not exceeding three weeks adding, "if you exceed three weeks without weeding, the vegetables are choked to death by weeds." They say the crops are very susceptible to weeds which easily reduce production to low levels. Weeding is a tedious process which entails squatting all over the garden or field and needs patience. Use of bare hands is preferred in an effort not to mistakenly uproot the crops.

    In bigger fields or gardens, several people are needed at any one time to undertake the weeding, "said Singen. Isoiyot is susceptible to Early Blight disease which thrives best under warm conditions and the agriculture officials say control-ling it when it has attacked the crop is difficult.

    The most important way of con-trolling early blight is attempting to prevent its establishment and further spread, "says Rotich. He says the best thing to do was to practice crop rotation with other crops like Amaranth, but not with tomatoes since they belonged to one family and were likely to be infected by the disease. Wider plant spacing is encouraged in areas with high humidity.

    Other remedies include use of hot water while using home or own seeds, purchase of certified seeds and practicing good field hygiene.

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