Business farmer turns wasteland into award winning food basket

Behind neglected land swathed by bushes and thickets, on sticky clay soil in Siaya District, is a 15-acre farm that a former stock broker has turned into a model of commercial farming, now feeding Kisumu’s schools, hotels and health facilities, in a personal project to prove just how productive land can be with the right inputs and smart management.

Boaz Azizi two years ago quit his lucrative job amid criticism and pessimism from his peers, to purchase the waste land from the local council for Sh1.5 million and transform it into what he now wryly calls Hobby Farm.

He has since invested Sh15m in creating the farm, including installing an irrigation plant and drilling a Sh1.8m borehole to protect his land from the impact of drought. "We pump the water to a tank, which then flows to the farm by gravity," he said. Previously, he pumped water from a stream using a small pump but the stream was far and the pumps kept wearing out.

Today, his farm hosts more than 10 different crops, including kales, tomatoes, and napier grass, as well as chicken, goats and six dairy cows, two of which are lactating and producing 30 litres of milk a day. Awitti has also built four fish ponds in a bid to reap maximum benefits from diversification.

Yet this concentration of agricultural productivity is not on finest loam soil, but on clay mixed with sand, which Awitti enriches with farmyard manure.

Since investing in the farm in 2009, Awitti has harvested over 100 sacks of maize, and raised several traditional vegetables including osuga and managu.

He also practices modern banana farming, with 270 stools of bananas in trenches to increase water retention. He has also planted napier grass in contours to provide sufficient fodder for the cows and to check against soil erosion. He uses slurry- a mixture of cow dung and water - to make the napier grass mature faster to boost the production of fodder. He also spreads the slurry on tubers, soon after the grass has been cut.

Awiti has additionally put in green houses, from which he harvests tomatoes and onions every two months.

The sum has been a stream of productivity. Last week, he harvested 70kg of onions and a fortnight ago, two of the four fishpond produced 60kg of fish that he supplied to local hotels and schools.

Awitti has 8 permanent and 10 casual workers on the farm, which he now plans to turn into a demonstration farm.

"It wasn’t a simple venture for me. But I looked at how much money we spend to buy basic commodities while lots of idle land exists. It becomes expensive for all of us in the long run. I would like farmers in Siaya and Nyanza Province to draw from my experience on Hobby Farm that we can make the region self-sufficient in food production, and economically empower ourselves," he says.

Since he ventured into this kind of farming, cabbage is the only crop Awitti has planted where the yield turned out to be poor. After two attempts, he stopped planting the vegetable, as the soil would not support it.

Last year, his hard work paid off, when he was declared the best farmer in Nyanza Province by the Ministry of Agriculture. With this recognition, Hobby Farm hosted last year’s national celebrations to mark World Food Day, and Awitti gave out free information on his success to other farmers.

Already 60 farmers in the area are replicating Awiti’s model, although the majority cite start up difficulties. “I know it’s hard for them. It was hard for me too. But these are things they should brace themselves for. In the long run they will understand why diversification really pays, and I am glad they have taken my message to heart,” he says.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter