Semi arid farmers turn barren land to multi million agricultural venture

Two years ago, two in every five households in Mbike area of Makueni could not afford a decent meal in a day as vagaries of weather and poor farming information conspired to rob them off income and decent living. But an idea hatched in a market place has now changed their fortunes scaling household income from less than a dollar a day to over Sh500,000 in a month.

When women traders set out to look for ways to end the perennial hunger, they never knew that an year later it would catapult them to international stardom. When KRep bank heard of the idea it decided to fund them, initially starting with tree nursery which grew to other ventures like drip irrigation. Now having formed themselves into a group called The Kaasuvi Mbike Ngwike group, they pride themselves of 10,000 community members who are respected internationally for propagation and sale of improved seedlings for vegetables and fruits. The group, was formed in 2001 with a modest group savings of Sh440 . Each of the 22 members, majority who could barely afford yo feed and clothe their families , contributed a monthly membership fee of Sh 20.

Since its inception, the group struggled with farming of maize, green grams and pigeon peas because they lacked knowledge on Good Agricultural Practices like low cost irrigation and cheap soil fertility methods like planting legumes to fetilize the soil. This together with lack of a stable and reliable markets for their produce threatened the group. As a result, the majority of members depended on the Government’s food relief programme.

Their light bulb moment came in 2010 when an ambitious programme dubbed However, the scenario changed in October Business Initiatives for Survival and Eradication of Poverty (BISEP),which is under the Kenya Horticulture Competitiveness Project (KHCP) a five-year United States Agency for International Development (USAID) meant to help small farmers and allied agribusinesses take advantage of local, regional, and global market opportunities.

The programme that was working to improve production of pulses, sweet potatoes and vegetables, started working with the group. Through USAID-KHCP interventions, BISEP trained the group in Good Agricultural Practices and introduced the group to various agricultural innovations such as land and nursery preparation techniques, drip irrigation, hybrid seedlings, soil sampling and greenhouses.

With USAID-KHCP and BISEP facilitation, the group constructed four greenhouses equipped with drip irrigation, which they used for the multiplication of vegetables and fruit seedlings such as brinjals, cabbage, capsicum, kale, mango, onion, orange, passion fruit, paw paw and tomato. The greenhouse facilities and drip irrigation enable the farmer group to consistently supply high quality seedlings to their community year round.

Between October 2011 to May 2012, the group had managed to sell over 600,000 vegetable seedlings worth Sh4.8 million. They also sold over 100,000 fruit seedlings worth Sh3 million in addition to donating seedlings to schools and the local community. The farmers well aware of the need to stay together as a group to reap from the benefits of economies of scale have a group bank account that they use for future investment while farmers also get something to assist them in their ventures. “On a good month, depending on the size of a farmer's delivery, a farmer can earn as much as Sh500,000 a month,”said Masha Ndeti,”one of the farmer group's official.

“We have appreciated the help that the programme extended to us, but they just taught us the methodologies of fishing. We no longer rely on them. What we never knew is that with modern farming technologies and diversity we can go far,”said Longo Mwendwa one of the farmers in the group.

The farmer group's success has spilled over into their community. Over 10,000 farmers, the majority coming from as far as Kwale, Taita, Thika, Machakos and Makueni, are benefiting directly from the group either through attendance at group sponsored field days and field visits or through direct seed purchases.

The steady stream of farmers has prompted the Ministry of Agriculture to use their farm as a model education center. Buoyed by their success, the group is now diversifying into fish and goat farming as well as bee keeping, creating 42 on-farm employment opportunties for youth.
The group is now penetrating the international market with some of their customers in UK having flown to the farms to witness the success story of diversification.