Investor targets juicy profits, harvests in organic fertiliser

Marion Moon: The surplus produce in foreign countries got me interested. PHOTO | LYNET IGADWAH
Marion Moon: The surplus produce in foreign countries got me interested. PHOTO | LYNET IGADWAH 

Marion Moon was restless during a tour of many countries, an adventure she paid for using her savings. For a month she was away in South East Asia, Thailand, Vietnam and Philippines to do some soul-searching.

While out of Kenya, she started wondering how the farmers in these countries she visited were producing surpluses.

“The culture shock got me so curious and that’s when I started questioning what it is that Kenyan farmers are not doing right to get such bounty harvests,” she said.

On returning home, Ms Moon, 32, of Wanda Organic, a company that imports organic fertiliser, researched on food production and found out that while Kenyan farmers were “depleting their soils” with chemical fertilisers, Vietnam, Philippines and Thailand were relying on organic farm inputs.

During the research, she stumbled upon the workings of Eliseo Cruiz, the formulator of plantmate organic fertiliser. She contacted Dr Cruiz for samples whose tests at a friend’s farm “were amazing; so I decided this was what I am going to invest in.”

Fertiliser and seeds are a big business in Kenya going by the scramble for the inputs during planting seasons.

While limited access persists, Ms Moon Kenyan farmers were getting a raw deal in the use of inorganic fertiliser, something she says has confined farmers to the tiny corner of complaints about poor yields every year.

In 2012, she established Wanda Organic to import organic fertiliser known as plantmate bio-organic from Phillipines.

The fertiliser that is recognised by the Government of Philippines as one of the best in that country has 22 microorganisms that unlock soil nutrients to improve yields.

It contains nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, micronutrients, probiotics, enzymes, and amino acids.

“The product works on the soils physical, biological and chemical properties,” Ms Moon, the Wanda Organic CEO, said.

It has been tested in Machakos and Makueni counties where farmers reported up to 30 per cent yield increases. Athman Kamangara, a farmer in Yatta, who grows French beans, maize, bananas, oranges and mangoes on a 2.4 hectare farm, says he started using the product in March 2014 and has seen better yields.

Plantmate maintains soil moisture during dry spell an repels some pests such as aphids and white flies, he said.

He buys a 50kg bag of Plantmate fertiliser at Sh3,150, which price Ms Moon says should drop to between Sh2,000 and Sh2,500 when local production starts by next year.

Government-sponsored DAP sells for Sh1,800 per 50kg bag, but Sh3,500 in the market. Under the government subsidy, CAN is Sh1,500 while the market rate is Sh3,000 a bag.

Trials have been carried out in Nyeri, Kirinyaga, Nakuru and Laikipia counties with support from the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre (KCIC), she said.

Last week, Wanda Organic inked a deal with two Philippines-based companies to set up an organic fertiliser manufacturing plant in Nakuru and Laikipia by end of the year.

Under the tripartite agreement ELR Family Trading Inc and Richfund International Company Ltd will provide technical support for manufacturing of Plantmate.

Ms Moon said the pact is a milestone and that each factory will be built at between Sh90.9 million ($900,000) to Sh121 million ($1,200,000).

This is so far the biggest deal signed by Wanda Organic, which has 16 employees trained in agriculture and procurement.

The Business Management graduate of Macquarie University in Sydney Australia is optimistic that the company will start commercial supplies next year.

The journey so far has been an uphill task, she offers and lists some of the challenges. Getting government approval was the hardest. The company had to prove that microbes in the fertiliser were safe for local environment and would benefit farmers.

These require multiple assessments, including lab, greenhouse and field tests on different crops, a process that lasted two and a half years.

Prior to getting government approval, most development agencies turned down her request for funding, insisting she must have a licence.

“Most advised that I contact them when I have a minimum of 2,000 farmers within my loop,” recalls Ms Moon who quit her job as executive assistant at AON Uganda to start the company.

Technical assistance

But remained committed, always dreaming about the plight of farmers and their thin harvests.

In 2014, a pitch to the USAID finally went through, giving Wanda Organics a grant of Sh7.7 million as well as offering technical assistance.

Within 16 months, read the grant conditions, the product should be government-approved, registered positive feedback from farmers and made business sense.

She focused the funds on Makueni and Machakos and only included Kiambu, Kirinyaga and Nyeri counties after getting an additional Sh3.8 from the KCIC.

An additional Sh14 million was pooled from family and friends to test Plantmate fertiliser in Nakuru and Laikipia counties. “By the end of 2015, it was clear that the product was having great impact on smallholder farmers,” she said.

Having participated in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in 2015, the forum taught her the dividends of integrity, which “dictates the future of enterprise. If I did not have high levels of integrity my friends and family would not have dared to contribute to my business kitty.”

When quitting her job in Uganda, she had no idea what business she would start, but “wanted to start something that would have great impact in Kenya and give return on investments.