Small Enterprise

IT expert reaps big from export beans agribusiness

Jane Mbau during the interview. PHOTO | WAIKWA MAINA | NMG
Jane Mbau during the interview. PHOTO | WAIKWA MAINA | NMG 

After working as an IT expert in the United Kingdom for 15 years, last December, Jane Mbau felt she had earned enough to sustain her and her son back in Kenya.

She had many investment plans, but settled on none. Farming was not among them until in February when a friend approached requesting her to partner in a venture.

Ms Mbau was in a fix, having not engaged in farming since her childhood. “I have never been a farmer. Farming was normally done by my uncle and my father as I watched from a distance,” she explained. 

“I sought advice from my uncle. He encouraged me, but told me farming is a risky venture. However, he added that if I was up to taking the risk, I should farm on a large scale.”

With that advice, she injected Sh2 million of her savings into a three-acre farm at the remote Ndemi Village in Nyandarua County.

The capital was used in land preparation, setting up irrigation systems, purchase of compost manure, crop supporters, labour, seeds and other farm inputs.

The IT expert did her research and settled on the crop that her friend had encouraged her to try out — lima beans pods which are also referred to as butter or runner beans.

She signed a purchase agreement with an exporter who promised dedicated market in the UK where they are a delicacy.

The 45-year-old says that after nearly four months, she harvested an average of 20 tonnes every week over the six-week-long peak season. She sold a kilogramme of the beans for Sh50, earning her about Sh1 million a week.

This harvest and earnings exceeded her expectations that she decided to expand the acreage under the crop to seven acres. By December, she intends to add nine more acres.

“There is no comparison between what I used to earn as an IT expert and what I earn from farming. I am here to stay and farming is my choice,” she told Enterprise.

Her day begins shortly before 6am when she moves to inspect her farm and ends at 6pm long after her employees have left. 

On normal days, the farm has around 30 casual workers, but this increases to 70 when it is harvesting season. According to agronomist Samuel Muchai, the recommended spacing for planting the beans is 1.5 metres between rows and 10 inches between plants, with a depth of about one inch.

Ms Mbau has, however, planted her crops in raised beds at a spacing of 30 by 40 inches between plants, one metre between the rows but maintains the recommended depth.

Her uncle, Mr Nderitu, who also doubles as her farm manager and adviser, says the biggest challenge they face is weeds.

“The manure and our soil type make the land fertile for weeds. Weeding is done at least three times before the canopy is big enough to build shades that frustrate more weeds,” he says.

Like his niece, he says it is crucial to be at the farm throughout the day to supervise the employees just to ensure everything is done the right way and as directed by the exporter.

“A small mistake can be disastrous. We have designated areas where one can’t eat or smoke. It’s also important to ensure that fertiliser application is done the right way at recommended ratios.”

He, however, says the farm has not experienced any major disease or pests attacks, something he partly attributes to the type of pesticides they use and crop rotation.

The first pods are harvested intermittently — a practice referred to as fly harvesting — about 12 weeks after planting. Daily harvesting happens when the production hits 200kgs in a day. This usually lasts for another three months.

Ms Mbau attributes her success to favourable weather conditions in Nyandarua. 

Further, they have also had to master the best planting seasons. Around June, they ensure that they do not have as much crop since the weather in the UK is favourable, leading to demand for imported crop.