Farmers in Rift Valley are domesticating nettles, a high valued vegetable that was traditionally farmed by native communities along the Mau forest as demand soars dictated by a health conscious middle class.
A group of women in the area are now respected suppliers of the nettles in large hotels in Rift Valley province especially those that specializes in indigenious cuisine like Mukimo a favourite among the Kikuyu. The women get the seedlings for the nettle plant from those that grow wildly which they later transplant in their seedbeds. The plant does well in highlands that have altitudes of between 2000 and 3000 meters, with the women arguing that the plant does well on fertile land where they once grazed their livestock.
The nettles take on average one to two months to mature and produce leaves with the harvesting being done manually between the months of March to June and September and October. Depending on how long they have grown, the nettle plant may be used whole or if they have taken time before harvesting, the tender leaves are harvested. Depending on the way the farmers would want to sell the nettle it is either immersed in water after harvesting to soften the fine stinging effect and sold fresh in the market or is dried on sisal sacks in the shade taking between 8 to 12 hours to dry before being grinded.
The harsh rays of the sun are not suitable for drying since they interfere with the attractive bright green colour where the nutrients are. It’s the dried nettle leaves that have kept the women in business owing to the huge returns it gives them. While a bundle of 10 nettle leaves would only pick between Sh 10 and 20 in the local market since it competes with other vegetables that consumers are used to, the grinded powder of 10 nettle leaves would triple that at Ksh 50 “due to the many uses that the powder can be used in which include being added to tea, almost any food including ugali and chapatti and is fond with children who shy away from the leaves themselves,” explains Ruth Githae a woman involved in nettle farming.
With a paltry seed capital of Sh 10,000 and little investment in manure and water that cannot surpass the Sh 5,000 in the time it takes for the nettle to blossom, the Molo women are recording returns of upto 30,000 per harvest in quarter of an acre that they have planted the nettle in with their markets spanning hospitals, hotels, schools, local supermarkets and homes for the aged.
Ladislas Owino a nurse at St Mathius Mulumba home for the aged who is a perennial customer of the powdered nettle insist that it has become a feasible alternative for the home that handles over 100 aged people as opposed to supplements that cost them a fortune to buy. “The nettle powder is so nutritious and cost effective at the same time especially because we add it in porridge and other foods that are a must for the aged and you only need a small portion to meet the nutritional requirement that is required of the patient,” says Owino. Sh 1,000 investment in the nettle powder is enough to cater for four patients in a week adding the powder in their three meals a departure from previously where they had to invest much more in supplements and greens for the aged.
But as the demand for the nettle balloons and more customers are drawn into the health benefit of the plant, the women are finding themselves in a tighter spot in terms of production capacity and quality in packaging. Grinding a sack full of nettle leaves with rudimental grinding methods like a special stone carved to grind takes on average 8-10 hours and lots of manpower, a challenge that is attracting a partnership with a local cooperative that is in the process of securing for them a modern grinding machine, “which will not only increase the amount of leaves we grind because we have a lot to grind, but will also allow us to move into packaging the products in a wholesale format and spread our market wider,” says Ruth.
Since time immemorial nettles have been known to possess medicinal value doing justice to various body systems, including the lungs, kidneys, skin, and blood. The herb has been recognized for its ability to stop bleeding, relieve mucous congestion and water retention, and improve skin irritations. It is considered to be an excellent blood purifier. Tea mixed with nettle powder has also been known to increase the milk flow of nursing mothers as well as being a perfect gargle that cures mouth and throat infection. The dried leaves are also used for farm animals. Mixed with chicken feed, they increase egg production while increasing milk production in cows. They have also been known to produce a glossier coat whether for feather or fur.