Naromoru farmers process fortunes with safflower venture

Farmers in Naromoru area who were introduced to the oil rich safflower growing by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) have now moved into extracting and processing their own oil from the safflower a venture that has turned lucrative for them earning them twice as high as industrially processed oils.

The demand for the oil is currently running ahead of the supplies the farmers from Nairobi and Naromoru can deliver.Unlike industrially processed oils, cold pressed oils retain most of their flavour, aroma and nutritional value. “They also have no additives,” said Dr Jendeka Mahasi the crop specialist at KARI-Njoro branch. Besides the oil, the safflower itself has many uses. In India, which produces a third of the world’s safflower, it’s used as an ingredient by both the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries, where it is used to make medicines that manage heart disease. The oil lowers blood cholesterol. The safflower is also a key ingredient in Chinese medicines. Its dried stalks are also used as nutritious livestock feed and as a biomass fuel.

Locally, flower farmers have also found a niche export market for the safflower, which lasts for 2 weeks as a cut flower before it withers, compared with an average of a week for other flowers.

With a deep tap root that grows two metres into the soil, safflower is suited for intercropping with shallow roots crops like maize, sorghum, lentils, millets and chickpea. “It doesn’t compete with companion crops for moisture and nutrients,” said Dr Mahasi.

The safflower also rids soils of salinity and loosens hard, compact soils making farming easier. “It improves the soil structure,” said Dr Mahasi.

From planting, safflower is harvestable in 115 to 140 days, and grows well with rain of 250 to 650mm, yielding up to 2 tonnes per hectare. However, it’s susceptible to safflower rusts that can be controlled spraying with fungicides. “Seed dressing before planting is advisable,” said Dr Mahasi, who recommends BJ293, BJ843, BJ 803, BJ 804, 1006, 9818 as the best varieties for growing, and adds that the safflower is most vulnerable to diseases when planted in cool climates.

"The crop is adapted to drought areas,” he said, where pests are minimal, and where the ideal time for planting is before rains to help germination.

The ideal harvest time is when foliage is dry and turns brown, when it should be in the morning when its spines are soft reducing chances of shattering. For farmers extracting cold pressed oils in Naromoru, 6kg of seeds are producing 1 litre of oil, with an average market price of about Sh300, or twice the average for industrial processed oils.

They are using screw press machines, which cost Sh300,000 in Nairobi’s Industrial area or motorised ram presses, Sh80,000 at Kariobangi light industries. The Naromaru project currently covers 150 acres, but regions in Kenya suited for safflower besides Naromoru are Gilgil, Marsabit, Machakos and Naivasha.