Farmers at the Wei-Wei Irrigation Scheme in Sigor, West Pokot County, are embracing cultivation of a little known yet lucrative cash crop, a huge step for a community largely known for cattle rustling. The farmers are earning millions of shillings following the introduction of the fast-maturing okra that is said to be rich in vitamins A and C and iron.
Okra, also known by some as “lady’s fingers”, was introduced in the area after the outbreak of the maize lethal necrosis disease in 2007, which wiped away vast plantations in the scheme. At Wei-Wei, farmers have currently put close to 70 acres under okra cultivation, out of the 900 acres the irrigation project serves.
“This is a crop that has registered a new impetus in our region. Since its introduction about six years ago, farmers are reaping big and it is gaining popularity,” said Michael Loktare, a farmers’ association official.
On a 2.5 acre plot, the piece of land issued to each farmer in the scheme during the project inception in 1987, Mr Loktare says farmers are switching from maize cultivation to fast maturing crops like okra, sunflower and new-entrant, water melons.
At the moment, the fast growing market for okra is being stimulated by supermarket whose agents travel to Sigor from Eldoret, Kitale, Kakamega and Bungoma towns to get produce. Trucks from Uganda are also said to throng the area.
According to Mr Loktare, okra does not require strict and costly management after sowing, especially the spineless variety also called Pusa Zawani. This yields up to 20 bags per 2.5 acres after shelling.
A kilogramme of died okra seeds sells for Sh179 and farmers are opting to sell their produce when still in pods for more profits.
In a year, a farmer cultivating 2.5 acres of land in the scheme can earn up to Sh1.2 million in four harvests. In the same period, the plot can yield 70 bags of maize at a value of Sh250, 000, the farmers say.
“The costs of inputs only comes in during land preparation. Costs are slim after planting because there are less cases of pests and diseases if one prepares land well before planting,” Mr Loktare said.
However, labour costs scale up, especially during weeding. The official says contracted workers usually quote a high price.
Pokot Central sub-county crops officer Agneta Aleyo, however, says the supply of okra seeds remains a challenge hampering increased cultivation. The Kenya Seed Company supplies the seeds.
“Sourcing for the seeds is a challenge for farmers and most say the government needs to see to it that there’s regular supply for most of them to embark on okra cultivation,” the crops officer said.
Warm temperatures, black volcanic soils and reliable supply of water through irrigation are the factors that largely support blossoming of the okra crop.
The Wei-Wei Integrated Development Project is a collaboration between the Kenyan government through the Kerio Valley Development Authority and the Italian Government, which offers funding.
And with the appetite for improved livelihoods and sustainability through agri-business, farmers are appealing to the government to fast-track the start of the Sh1 billion phase three irrigation project. Farmers have been waiting for the third phase since 1994.
Okra is also commonly known as lady’s fingers, bhindi, or bhendi, bhamia or gumbo and is a flowering plant originally planted in India and a number of English speaking countries.
A fully mature plant grows up to two meters tall. Some studies say okra extract can be used as a remedy to manage diabetes. Though little known, it is valued for its edible green seed pods.