Water crisis fails to dampen farmers’ greenhouse project

A farmer tends her greenhouse farm in Nyeri. A similar project by Sagante Community Group of Marsabit run into hurdles due to erratic supply of water. File
A farmer tends her greenhouse farm in Nyeri. A similar project by Sagante Community Group of Marsabit run into hurdles due to erratic supply of water. File 

A pioneering group of farmers in Marsabit is belatedly turning to ways of harvesting and securing water supplies after watching a high-investment, high-return project die through shortages.

Famine ravaged northern district of Marsabit came together to acquire a greenhouse and start vegetable farming last September, enjoying a rapid uptake in business that proved the commercial viability of their project – but not without securing their water supplies.

The greenhouse, measuring eight by 15 metres, cost Sh161,600 to set up, 70 per cent of which was financed by the Ministry of Arid Lands while the other 30 per cent was raised by the 24 member Sagante Community Group. “We had a lot of hope it would be the way out of poverty, but it’s unfortunate the water problem has diminished that”, said Halakhe Waqo, one of the group members.

When launched, the project was one of its kind and attracted admiration from surrounding farmers, who were ready to replicate it. The project was also lucrative by the standard of living in Marsabit, but only when water was available, said Mr Halakhe.

The group divided the greenhouse into two, planting half with tomatoes and half with sukuma wiki (kales). They watered the crops through drip irrigation from a raised container stationed outside the greenhouse.

Within the first six weeks, crops were ready for harvesting, and the small greenhouse was producing 35kg of tomatoes and about 30kg of sukuma wiki every five days.

The harvest could have been higher with more water, said Mr Halakhe, but they rationed the water to less than the 600 litres a day required, which in turn curbed output.

Even so, within weeks of erection, the imposing white coloured greenhouse had changed the life of the villagers around as they flocked to buy the vegetables and tomatoes.

A kilogramme of the tomatoes were sold at Sh50 to Sh70, while sukuma wiki fetched about Sh500 in sales revenue a week, making for total income of between Sh2,300 and Sh3,300 a week, or up to Sh14,800 a month.

However, at the time of establishing the greenhouse, the price of an 18,000-litre water tanker, enough for a month’s production, was already standing at about Sh15,000. The Ministry of Lands helped by supplying some tankers of water, for which the group covered the driver’s allowance and fuel costs. But sometimes there were gaps of months in getting the tankers from the ministry

Eventually, the project ran out of water, with the nearest local water source some 30km away at Kubi Qallo, or at about the same distance at LogoLogo, and the group unable to afford to hire its own water tankers to fetch more water. The rapid breakdown of the new project, which the farmers had planned to replicate by adding more greenhouses to raise earnings, has focused the group on ways of finding a sustainable water solution through a new, local borehole or concerted water harvesting. “We want to look for a way to set up enough tanks to harvest water during rain, but still, getting tanks is expensive,” said Mr. Halakhe.

But the rationale, he says, is there. Apart from the initial set-up cost and the water price, the project was cheap to run, since Marsabit is fertile and needed less fertiliser than other areas.

— African Laughter