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Young Kitui farmer proves they’re millions in arid vegetable farming

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By George Munene

In Kitui’s Mwingi West constituency, young farmer George Mutemi’s investment in irrigated agriculture has enabled him to invest in high-value crops that rake in millions, giving a new face to a region often associated with chronic water shortage and perennial drought.

With the county being dry year-round and most growers relying on rainfed agriculture, farmers have been relegated to typically low-value crops like cotton, tobacco, sisal, grains, and pulses. According to gathered data, 73.4% of farmers’ income in the area is lower than the average in Kenya.

On 7.5 acres of family land, the former Finance & Marketing grad is growing four acres of tomatoes and 3.5 acres of onions which earn him a pretty penny from his long-held agriculture passion.

This didn’t come cheap or overnight though; “We embarked on commercial agriculture in December 2021 and have invested Sh1.2 million since that time. This has gone into ensuring we have a reliable irrigation system and experienced manpower,” George said. The big ticket items he had to invest in include expanding a pre-existing well; a 10,000-liter tank; solar-powered panels to run a submersible pump; pipes and drip lines that traverse his farming land.

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From four acres, with good crop husbandry practices he can harvest up to 160 tons of tomatoes which earns him Sh 3.2 million over a seven-month period. This is assuming a low market price of just Sh20 a kilogram. For onions, he is harvesting one tonne for a kilogram of seed which is the equivalent of one acre of the crop. “Market timing is a skill we have had to master– given we do not have to rely on the rains we are at peak production over months we anticipate tomato prices will be highest,” explained the visionary farmer. They also have a consistent group of buyers who appreciate that they can source some produce from the farm year-round.

With operational costs by the end of this year, he expects to have recouped the majority of his investment and started earning a profit from his investment.

The ongoing historic five-year drought has limited last year’s short rains to 55 per cent lower than the 40-year average curtailing food supplies to markets. “The soil and overall climate here is conducive for agriculture, while farmers have large tracts of land they are limited in the crops and acreage they can farm with some opting to keep grazing livestock on over 100 acres due to a lack of water and finances,”  he said. For growers not dependent on rainfed agriculture, this has been a boon. Currently, he informs, farmgate prices have been quite fair with onions at Sh40 a kilo and tomatoes between Sh45 and 50.

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His major buyers are traders from the neighboring Kabati Market. Though he occasionally supplies Githurai Market and also works with three brokers in Nairobi.

Beyond the intangible benefits of helping reorient people’s minds to what is possible in semi-arid Kitui, Mutemi’s farm has employed three full-time workers and tens of casual laborers. “We are proud of our small part in contributing to the reduction of poverty through providing unemployment and nutrition to our people,” he beamed. With over 50 acres of ideal, fertile farmland and a track record that speaks for itself, he is keen on getting to partner with lenders or investors that will help accelerate his vision.

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