Vegetarian artist flies in rare vegetable farming

Mr-Kamande-Njenga-kenya-farmerMr. Kamande Njenga has never liked animal products. In fact, he cannot recall the last time he consumed them. Influenced by health grounds, he also couldn't stand watching animals being slaughtered, and has anyway always loved vegetables and anything green in his meal. But it is now an attachment that has metamorphosized into one of the biggest vegetable farms in Limuru, which he founded six years ago.

Called Mlango Farm, his farm grows some of the rarest vegetables and herbs in the country, all grown organically, as Njenga places huge importance on the preservation of the environment. His range includes Chives, Italian Spinach, Kohlrabi (a German tulip), Pakchoi (an Asian Cabbage) among others. “I was looking for variety, to introduce customers to a whole new range of high value vegetables and shift their minds from the traditional vegetables they are used to seeing,” said Njenga.

In maximising his range and output, he has also perfected the art of intercropping the vegetables and herbs on the 25 acre farm, which he says assists in adding nutrients in the soil, while ensuring 'on-demand' supply of the vegetables. For example, spinach and lettuce don't compete for soil nutrients, while parsley and celery assist in warding off pests.

It's a formula that has given him ready market, even as local markets become saturated, with ArtCaffe, Windsor and Onami among his biggest customers.

The journey to build a name and a brand for his farm has been bumpy one, however, as he tried to convince prospective customers at a time when everyone else was pitching for their business too, but it is a journey that he says was worth it. He first approached ArtCaffe over a year ago, didn't hear back from them, and gave up. But a month later he got a call from them, wanting to see his produce and visit his farm. “I welcomed them to the farm and took them round it. They were impressed with my quality and we sealed the supply deal. But I could understand why they took so long to actually have me as their supplier. Their level of standards is unmatched, quality is their second name, and they would only want to work with those who identify with quality. I am glad I convinced them,” he said.

His appeal, however, was also down to his range: variety is Njenga's tagline. In everything he grows and supplies it has to come in different varieties. For lettuce, for example, he supplies 15 different varieties, including butternut and oakleaf, which are among those preferred by health conscious customers due to their unrivaled ability to prevent cancer.

On a normal day, he supplies over 30kilos of lettuce to ArtCaffe alone, with many other kilos of Italy, spinach, parsleys and onions. In a month, this earns between Sh250,000 and Sh300,000.

The growing demand for his produce has seen him recruit 12 additional workers, who do the weeding, planting, harvesting and watching the farm. He has also invested heavily to grow the produce organically. None of his crops are grown with any synthetic fertilizer. But this has meant a labour of love to grow the crops to high standards. He only grows them using Maasai goat manure which he gets from Rongai and other Maasai areas. Every month, he buys a truck load of the goat manure at Sh20,000, which fertilizes the entire farm.

“I prefer manure from Maasai goats, because the goats eat lots of the highly nutritious shrubs which eventually ensures nutritious manure. I would never settle for any other manure. If I have to invest in quality I have to spend on quality,” he said.

The rising demand for the vegetables has also meant planting every day of the week on a rotational basis. “I have never faulted on delivery. It is the biggest turnoff to clients, so I ensure every day we are planting and harvesting.” His customer base is also now ballooning, onwards from restaurants to individual customers conscious of what they eat. He now has special bags where he mixes the vegetables based on what the customer should eat that entire week. “So, I will arrange, for example, broccoli with onions on Monday, Italian spinach on Tuesday, and so on. It's some sort of advice to my customers, so when I package for a week they can plan themselves better, so as not to repeat the same vegetable in their menu.” This has seen his customer base grow to now 60 individual customers. He has a location where his customers meet him.

In all, his biggest challenge, however, has been limited access to quality seeds, and the late delivery of the seeds, which affects the production process. Njenga has resolved to import some high value seeds himself to insulate the farm. “I would never imagine not planting for a day because of poor seed variety or late delivery. Some of these seeds are very hard to find locally.”

The weather and soil conditions in Limuru, however, are favourable all year round. “I want to be the best in delivery of vegetables and give people variety. My farm Mlango means a door, an opening into new opportunities, new markets and new frontiers, and I want to keep pursuing these doors, for myself and my clients,” said a jovial Njenga, who is also an artist and a sculptor. When free he carries his paintings to his farm as he connects with the farm, his brush and nature.