Jael Ochanji in her sweet potato farm at Kabondo in Homa Bay County. Photo courtesy.
In 2015, Jael Ochanji took the risk of resigning from Brookside Dairy Limited as a sales representative within Nairobi region, a job which was earning her between Sh50,000 and Sh100,000 a month to join her mother in sweet potato farming, a venture which is currently earning her Sh150,000-200,000 an acre.
Before relocating to Kabondo in Homa Bay County from Nairobi, the single mother with two daughters and a marketing graduate from Nairobi Institute of Business Studies became resourceful in connecting her mother with key markets in the city where she could supply the produce weekly.
“Other than preparing to move the whole family back home, I had a great task of looking for customers and well-paying markets that we would fetch better returns,” said Jael.
By the time she was migrating to Homa Bay in 2017 she had secured a weekly sweet potato supply tender from Uchumi Supermarkets Ltd to deliver the produce.
Unfortunately, soon after settling at home her mother got ill and could no longer actively operate the 20 acres farm where the sweet potatoes are produced under irrigation. This meant that Jael was to sit at the helm of Kenya Sweet Potato Company which had been started by the mother to grow yellow and white fleshed sweet potato varieties for both the tubers and vines.
“I did not find it difficult to fit in my mother’s shoes because since our childhood, our parents especially our mother engaged us in farm activities and since then I developed deep interest in sweet potato farming which has been the family’s favourite commercial crop,” said Jael.
“Though I have become the face of this enterprise, I also have a brother and a sister who gives support from time to time if need be hence they have become more or less like partners.”
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Now three years down the line, the company has acquired more acres under sweet potato tubers and vines production from the initial 20 to 35 spread in different areas within Kabondo.
She has mastered the production of the crop spreading her planting time to ensure steady harvesting throughout the year saying that the two varieties that she has been growing have good market demand.
Before planting the vines, she makes ridges or mounds which helps in conserving soil moisture, reducing soil erosion, making harvesting easier and improving yields.
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She grows her crops organically using livestock manure as most farms in the area are still fertile hence do not need much fertility boost.
“Kabondo is well known for fertile soil as the area is at the foot of Kisii highlands and besides we receive rainfall almost throughout the year making our production all year round,” said Jael.
Sweet potatoes have a short maturity period of 3-7 months and because of its short duration, it is very strategic for addressing food insecurity.
However, according to Jael, most of the crop consumed locally are imported from either Uganda or Tanzania as local farmers who are majorly smallholders cannot produce enough especially during dry seasons.
“Fortunately Kenyan consumers love our home-grown yellow and white sweet potatoes for food because they are tasty, rich in nutrients and they do not become soggy when cooked like other varieties,” said Jael.
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She harvests her produce throughout the year and transport up to 80 sacks of sweet potatoes weighing 80kg per sack preferably to Nairobi’s Wakulima Market since Uchumi suspended the tender following the retail chain’s sorry state while the rural markets offer lower discouraging prices.
“I stopped supplying to Uchumi early last year as the supermarket has been doing badly. Rural open air markets on the other hand offer low prices as seemingly every homestead has a sweet potato farm,” she said.
In Nairobi, she sells the 80kg sack at Sh3,500 minimum but during high demand the price can shoot up to Sh7,000 a bag while in rural markets in the region the same bag can fetch as low as Sh1,500.
This means that in a week Jael can earn up to sh280,000 during low demand and Sh560,000 in high demand selling in Nairobi.
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Her expenses on planting, weeding and harvesting cost Sh6,000 each which she pays to hired casual labourers while transporting a bag of sweet potato to Nairobi costs Sh500 each.
She also sells an average of seven bags of sweet potato vines at Sh1,500 per week to farmers from every part of the country who reach her online through the company’s website and Facebook page.
Her future plan is to put up a sweet potato processing plant to process different products and enable her and other farmers from the region access direct market to their produce.
Jael can be reached on +254 726 689806