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One year hospital stay that inspired ‘Mkulima Mdogo’s’ farming empire

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Between June 2017 and July 2018, Lamech Victorious lay broke and bedridden after suffering 30 per cent burns on his body. He didn’t know it then, but that tragedy was the catalyst for him building his small empire. Popularly known as Mkulima Mdogo within farming circles– a sarcastic nickname which he embraced– the 27-year-old today supplies millions of seedlings and 50 tons of fertiliser monthly to farmers across Kenya.

From observing a disconnect between seedling producers and rural farmers in 2018; the Hass avocado and passion fruit boom of 2019 – 2020; the bursting demand for vegetable seedlings in 2021; to the swelling clamor for cheaper, more soil-friendly fertiliser today, Lameck has been there to supply shovels to those looking to dig up their farming pot of gold.

“During the holidays I would work at a hotel to save up some cash that I would use to survive once I got back to Uni. I was refilling methylated spirit into a faulty food warmer which blew up,” he tragically recounted. 

I spent 13 months at Kenyatta, Oasis Mission, and Tigoni hospitals. Thankfully, most of my medical bill was covered by the NHIF with the remainder being met by the hotel I worked at. I was brought up by my grandparents who were farmers and unfortunately, most of what we had was spent on getting me back on my feet. I was also not healthy enough to get back to work and this meant going back for my second year of uni was out of the cards,” the former University of Eldoret student informed.

Having had nothing but time during his various hospital stints, he was often on Facebook where in between boomer memes he found a thriving family of farmers. “Agriculture was our major source of income so naturally as my grandparents got older I took on a more active role in running the shamba. I found that I had a natural knack and aptitude for it, even scoring an A in my high school KCSE exams. Most of my agricultural knowledge today is built on what we learned in secondary school.”

Lamech would interact with farmers online, learning and offering up advice to those he could help. “At the time I realised there was a real dearth of agricultural expertise on what fertilisers or pesticides to use and where to source for authentic seedlings within farming forums,” he said. He made lifelong friends, colleagues, and would-be customers during those early days. Some, shocked to learn that he was in hospital, even came to visit him.

“Serendipitously, around the time I was being discharged, an agronomist working for an exporting company was struggling to source 10,000 passion fruit seedlings. One of my grandfather’s friends had thousands of passion fruit seedlings around our home in Kangema which he was struggling to find a market for.” Acting as the go-between he helped fulfill 80 per cent of the order selling each seedling at forty shillings. “There was a clear market inefficiency between rural seedling growers, who often skewed older and didn’t use social media much, and potential large-scale buyers,” he pointed out.

¼ Acre (2018-2019)

He plowed back the proceeds from the sale into buying more vegetable and fruit seeds for propagation on his quarter-acre shamba. Having built up a bit up a name for himself in online farming circles he would get a steady stream of referrals. “I would deliver well-grown seedlings on time via courier to farmers wherever they were– some of whom we’d only known of each other via Facebook.”     

His next big break was an order of 30,000 capsicum seedlings which he sold at Sh 2.50 each. 

“I was still practicing open-air broadcast cultivation, sometimes even intercropping seedlings with crops which lost me a lot.” He used the earnings from the hoho sale to purchase more seeds, and seedling trays as well as setting up a makeshift greenhouse.

He was now selling about 20,000 seedlings monthly to farmers across Kenya. These were still largely Facebook contacts and their farmer friends they directed to him. A bulk of the seedlings were his own, the rest were sourced from farmers across Muranga County.

1 Acre

With the savings he’d accumulated from these sales, he was able to lease an acre of land in Kenol town. “The property owner wasn’t using the land so I was able to snag a really sweet deal in an ideal location that was close enough to the Meru-Nairobi highway giving me easy access to farmers. It was also ideal for agriculture as it had irrigation water and was virgin land with a flat topography.”

Avocado, Passion Fruit Gold Rush (2019-2020)

Around this time Lamech constructed his first greenhouse and adopted more improved and streamlined seed propagation methods.

“There was a big push by agriculture exporting companies and the government to get farmers growing Hass avocados which were fetching extortionate prices in international markets. This concerted demand for the seedlings was nowhere near meeting the demand. I stocked up on them and through referrals landed a government tender to supply Hass avocado seedlings to Nyeri and Meru county farmers.”

This earned him between Sh600,000 to 700,000.

He also noticed a similar uptick in the demand for passion fruits by farmers. As with avocados, the rate of passion fruit seedling propagation hadn’t caught up to the demand. There were months he would sell 30,000 to 40,000 seedlings at Sh50 a pop.

Covid-19 and the boom in vegetable and herb sales (2021)

When Kenya was in the throes of the pandemic, Lamech observed increased purchases of vegetable seedlings amongst Kenyans who would otherwise purchase their foods from local markets. “There were disruptions in the usual food transport routes which led to the prices of everyday consumables skyrocketing. Folks were also weary of visiting major markets. Coupled with this, was a growing consciousness around the nutritive value of the foods people consumed and a growing demand for natural alternatives to conventional medicines. That is when we got into the propagation of herbs and spices which we do to this day,” he illuminated.

Today, his vegetable, fruit trees, herbs, and spices seedling propagation farm sits on three acres. It is semi-automated and uses cocopeat processed at Mombasa as a growing media. The business employs 30 full-time young people.

Demand for chemical fertiliser alternatives (2022)

By March of 2023, the cost of fertilizer had risen to Sh 7,000 for a 50kg bag which made it inaccessible to most farmers. He realised that farmers were also becoming more aware of the long-term downsides of the repeated application of synthetic fertilisers to their soils. Many farmers are consciously seeking out alternatives that safeguard their yields today as well as ensuring the long-term viability of their soils. “After purchasing seedlings from us, many of our clients would request for referrals to trusted fertiliser suppliers. Between 2022 and 2023 we conducted farmer surveys across the country and beyond the extortionate prices, we realised that there was growing discontent that continuous convention fertiliser application was accelerating the destruction of soil biodiversity and in turn plateauing or cratering farmer yields.”

He started production of Seedpro fertiliser in November of 2022. The fertiliser which retails for between Sh5,000 and 5,800 is infused with carbonised coconut husks which has been shown to improve soil quality and increase plant growth and productivity, particularly in highly weathered soils with strong acidity, low clay content, and poor fertility.

“I have used my background in seedling propagation and farming to customise our various fertilisers to ensure they meet the specific crop and soil requirements of our farmers,” he said.

With a team of local ‘engineers’ most of whom hadn’t set foot in an engineering class, he was able to fabricate blending machines that would have costed him five to six million shillings for less than half the price.

He set up the plant on 20 acres of leased land in Muranga where he also keeps 130 galla goats and dorper sheep. It is run by up to 60 employees.

Mkulima Mdogo: 0711844870

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