Fishermen turn to horticulture for bigger, juicier catch

Jennifer Owaga counts tomatoes at their farm in Gembe Nyamanga in Mbita. Right,  Mr Denis Weya, from the district,  takes data on a demonstration farm. Former fishermen who have  turned to growing vegetables and fruits say it is more profitable. Tom Otieno
Jennifer Owaga counts tomatoes at their farm in Gembe Nyamanga in Mbita. Right, Mr Denis Weya, from the district, takes data on a demonstration farm. Former fishermen who have turned to growing vegetables and fruits say it is more profitable. Tom Otieno 

When 34 year-old George Odhiambo sold his fishing gear in 2002 and ventured into horticulture, his neighbours in Mbita, Homa Bay County, faulted him, saying he had taken the wrong turn.

A semi-arid region, residents rely on fishing. Millet and maize farming has not been promising.

“Everybody was pointing fingers at me, telling me that I had no idea what I was doing”, says Mr Odhiambo. “It was difficult at first because we were going against all odds but decided we wanted to prove a point.”

He is part of a small group of fishermen who upon seeing the dwindling stocks on Lake Victoria and the rising territorial disputes on the waters, decided to explore other economic activities.

Mbita is one of the poorest districts in Nyanza sparsely populated with the majority of residents having no discernible source of income. The district is largely semi-arid and the black cotton soil does not invite people into commercial agriculture.

In the past, a large population of youths migrated to neighbouring towns ins search of employment, robbing the community of the vital labour force it needed to drive socio-economic development. Poverty levels rose.

It was under the circumstances that Jacob Otieno, coming back from an agribusiness training programme sponsored by the Embassy of Israel, decided to try what he saw in the largely arid country.

“What I saw in Israel were plains of terrain more arid than my home being transformed into rich arable land”, he said.

When Mr Otieno returned home, he sold the idea to nine others and they started Animal Draft Power Programme, a community-based organisation, to explore the district’s potential for agri-business. The CBO derived its name from the first project it instituted to educate the community to plant and weed using oxen.

“When we started our programme we discovered that people in the community, especially women, were interested in farming but lacked the proper skills and knowledge”, says Mr Otieno.

For long, the county relied on food imports from Nakuru and Kisumu in spite of living next to a fresh water lake.

“Most people in our community were of the opinion that farming especially horticulture was a white man’s affair. The crops that were “traditionally” accepted in the region were maize, millet and sorghum” says Mr Otieno.

Through the animal draft programme however, Mr. Otieno and his team started experimenting with crop and seed varieties and imparting the knowledge to the community.

“We had a small demonstration plot and got most of our seeds from the Kenya Seed Company and the Ministry of Agriculture. During this period, we used to have one planting season each year and most of our crop varieties were open pollinated varieties (OPVs).”

As the returns from the farming became more tangible, more men and women in the community were drawn into horticulture.

In 2005, the United States Agency for International Development, (USAid) identified the Mbita CBO as a viable partner in its Kenya Competitive Horticulture Project (KCHP) and decided to work with them to improve the farming in the district.

According to Ian Chesterman, the project manager for the KHCP, the main aim of the project was to provide skills and resources to farmers in horticulture.

“KHCP is being rolled out in the entire country under the banner “feed the future” and what we are trying to do is to educate the farmers to grow better crops using simple technologies to increase their income potential by bringing into the market a wide array of crop varieties,” he said.

“The project is being run in parts of Eastern, Western and the Rift Valley provinces and we are experimenting with 21 different varieties of vegetables and about six different types of simple technologies.”

About 200 small holder farmers are being trained in demonstration and practicals on three and a half acre plots where four varieties of onions, three varieties of tomatoes and four varieties of cabbages were identified to do well in the region they were grown.

Raphael Orwa was an employee at the town council before he quit his job and adopted full-time farming.

“Before 2004 most of the farming we did was for subsistence without any form of technology or hybrid seeds,” he says.
“After the KHCP programme, we learnt how to irrigate our plots. At first we started with furrow irrigation and moved to drip irrigation which we found to be more expensive forcing us to revert to furrows.”

Using the funding from USAid, the community dag canals leading from Lake Victoria to their farms and bought mechanical pumps that were used to send the water uphill.

Four times more

“I started with tomatoes, sukuma wiki (kales) and capsicum. I, however, found that tomatoes were most rewarding and that is what I am doing”, he said.

“The first time I planted I used about 10 grammes of hybrid seeds on a quarter acre plot and I got Sh130, 000 worth of yield. At the council I used to be paid Sh6, 000 each month so it did not take me long to quit and become a fully-fledged farmer”.

For George Odhiambo who got a C plain in his Kenya Certificate for Secondary Education (KCSE) exams, his one acre plot of onions has paid for a diploma education, his sister’s secondary tuition and he is set to enrol for a degree programme with the proceeds from the same farm.

“I plant four times each year and each yield gives me about Sh80,000. This was more than four times what I used to get from fishing and I wish the young people in our community would stop trooping to the cities for employment because farming pays,” he says.

The smallholder farmers in the district are own between one and three acres of land and given this small size they have adopted crop rotation to maximise on the returns per acre.

The vegetables grown are sold both in bulk to supermarkets and retail markets in major towns in Western Kenya, Nyanza and the South Rift.

Right seeds

Through field days and workshops, neighbouring communities are educated on farming techniques and the appropriate seed types to grow.
In addition to this, the programme has initiated an “over the counter” training programme.

“In the ‘over-the-counter’ training programme, a farmer walks into one of our local stores to buy farm produce and is given brief instructions on how he can grow the same type of produce on his own farm”.

The instructions cover topics including irrigation methods, mulching and staking tomatoes.

“We are trying to tell the farmers to move away from the open pollinated varieties to hybrid varieties which take shorter time to mature and are more cost-effective in terms of pesticide costs and field maintenance.”

USAid is looking to upscale the KHCP programme to other parts of the county, the province and eventually have a demonstration plot in every county.

Commitment, hard work

“We are mostly concentrating our efforts under the ‘Feed the Future’ project in eastern Kenya and we are happy to see that most of the communities we are working with have shown a lot of interest and commitment in hardwork to the project”, said Mr Chesterman.

“We provide them with grant finance and skills and monitor that finance carefully to ensure that they are delivering what we agreed at in the beginning. We also take feedback from the farmers to ensure that the results of this local partnership are proving effective at the grassroots level”.

The project is run in partnership with local authorities, the Ministry of Agriculture while research institutions and USAid are betting on a replica of such success stories by communities in other regions to improve livelihoods.