How a humble vegetable crop changed Gilgil farmers’ lives

asparagus jerseygiantA vegetable crop that a farmer chanced on and used as fodder for his livestock has turned into a major export crop and source of income for Kigogo Farmers’ group in Gilgil who are now growing it commercially for local and export markets.

Known as asparagus one of the most sought after vegetable crop in the export market was spotted by Benson Chege , the group’s secretary, in 1987. He used to tell the other farmers that it was fodder for his livestock. His niece, who was working for a local flower company, saw the plant during a visit and told him that it was a major export crop for the company. She convinced him that the local farmers could grow it for the local market too, as the demand for asparagus is high in Nairobi.

“On her next visit she brought me some seeds”, Benson said. “I planted and tended it, as I had been shown, and harvested. On delivery, a tourist hotel in Naivasha bought all my asparagus at Sh140 per kilo.” A steady income for farmers. From the proceeds of the sale, Benson bought more seeds and increased the area under asparagus production on his family farm. Other farmers also learned from him and started production.

Asparagus production has continued to increase, bringing a steady income to farmers in the region. The major market for asparagus is Nairobi. At one time pyrethrum was the main cash crop for the majority of farmers in Nakuru district, including Gilgil. But farmers’ earnings dwindled when the Government failed to pay them for their deliveries. Most of them stopped pyrethrum production altogether. The discovery of asparagus as an alternative crop therefore came at the right time.

The crop does not require a lot of rainfall, which means it is well-suited for production in Gilgil, an area that receives moderate and sometimes below-average rainfall. “Asparagus has really changed the financial status of most of the farmers in this area”, says Benson. “Most of them now have a regular source of income, unlike in the past when they relied on pyrethrum and other farm products.”

Overproduction and supply of asparagus in the last few years has come with its own problems. The entry of middlemen has made the situation worse for asparagus growers. The middle men have formed cartels which frustrate farmers by making it difficult for them to sell directly to buyers in Nairobi at a much higher price.