How farmers are turning tiny vegetable plots into ‘green gold’

Esther Kisombe plucking vegetables in her farm that has grown using drip irrigation as a source for water. PHOTO | POOL

At 41 years, Frederick Atsiaya is deep into vegetable farming at his Mbale home in Vihiga County, saying the enterprise is “green gold”. A dairy technologist, he left employment and this “hard decision” has tripled his income, helping him to feed his two children and support four others.

Timothy Ingatia, 24, started vegetable farming at Class Seven and paid part of his school fees using earnings from this business.

“After Form Four, I went to Mombasa to hustle like everyone else, but returned with very little, if not nothing. However, vegetable farming has changed my life," Mr Ingatia told Enterprise at his Emukangu village of Kakamega County.

Among other benefits, Mr Ingatia says he is paying schools for his siblings from farming vegetables and targets studying agriculture at a college in the next four years.

A father of one, he harvests between two and three sacks of indigenous vegetables weekly. One sack of nightshade (managu) sells for Sh1,800 while a kilogramme goes for Sh50.

Brian Owade from Ebukhala village in Khwisero got into vegetable farming by chance on realising that casual jobs were not sustainable after he dropped out of school in Class Eight.

“I stumbled on vegetables as I was looking for a crop that would sustain me while consuming little space,” Mr Owade, 27 years, says while pointing out that land is a challenge as population grows.”

Mr Owade is a member of Ebukhala Farmers.

“One sack of vegetables goes for Sh3,000, an amount that can feed my cow for a whole month. African nightshade (managu) vegetable takes a month to be ready for harvest; a kilo goes for Sh50. This I can't get from maize.”

Nyce Lanya, a community development and social worker who dropped cereals business for vegetable farming, says she wants to “feed the community using different kinds of vegetables, which are nutritious”.

She grows leafy African vegetables such as amaranth, African nightshade, spider plant and Ethiopian mustard that are laden with iron, calcium, and vitamin A.

Ms Lanya says she employs techniques such as raised bed farming, push and pull using Napier grass, agroforestry, and composting.

This group of vegetable farmers is changing tack to use land economically by employing the right techniques and choosing the right crop whose earnings are higher than of maize.

Vegetables mature faster and have higher earnings from smaller plots—less than an acre on average— than what maize demands, they said.

They have been able to wriggle out of challenges such as low earnings, looking for elusive casual jobs, going round cultural limitations on land ownership, and taking the route of green manure as opposed to chemical fertiliser.

As groups of farmers, they have organised themselves as vegetable business networks (VBNs) guided by World Vegetable Center through which they are trained in compost preparation, nutrition, water conservation, agronomy, and agroforestry at demo farms and at Bukura Agricultural College.

World Vegetable Center is working on a six million Euros (Sh750m at current rates) Veggies 4 Planet and People (V4P&P) project with SNV as the implementing partner. At a local level Rural Outreach Africa is working with SNV to build the capacity of the farmers in various counties in Kenya.

Started in 2020, the five-year project emphasises regenerative agriculture covering compost, green manure, crop rotation, and eliminating use of chemical fertiliser and pesticides. Funded by the IKEA Foundation to work with women and youth in vegetable production and distribution, it aims to close the ‘vegetable gap’ and boost livelihoods and nutrition.

It focuses on providing employment for youth and women and targets establishing 200 vegetable business networks, 120 in Kenya, and 80 in Ethiopia, covering a network of about 4,000 women and youth. Now at 60 VBNs in Kenya, the project is spread in six counties of Kisumu, Vihiga, Kakamega, Machakos, Kiambu and Murang’a.

“To bridge the vegetable gap, people need opportunities to produce and market vegetables to generate income,” said World Vegetable Center’s Ralph Roothaert, the project’s principal investigator.

According to World Vegetable Center, vegetable consumption in sub-Saharan Africa is the lowest of any region in the world.

The WHO recommends a daily intake of 400g of fruits and vegetable per person. In Sub-Sahara Africa, less than 10 percent of people above the age of 15 reach that target while in Kenya it is at 6.1 percent. According to many accounts, fruit and vegetables consumption remains low due to cost that pushes many people to unhealthy diets.

In the first quarter of 2022, Kenya’s earnings from vegetables fell to Sh2.2 billion, registering a drop of Sh6.1 billion, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

Data specific to traditional African vegetables is not available, Okisegere Ojepat, the chief executive of Fresh Produce Consortium of Kenya, said, promising that his group and the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) will issue the first report in the next three months.

Mr Atsiaya, who has specialised in producing and selling vegetable seedlings, says the business has grown his income to Sh100,000 monthly from the Sh30,000 he earned as a milk collector, working from 1am to 1pm.

“I gathered a lot of crops information from employment and quit to do maize. My first venture was maize farming but only got seven and a half sacks from slightly bigger than a quarter-acre plot after six months,” Mr Atsiaya, told Enterprise at his Rowe village home in Vihiga County.

He picked vegetable farming after “looking at the maize growing expenses and realising the business was not breaking even.” While the farms are small, “we have realised there is green gold” in vegetable farming, he said.

Mr Atsiaya started with 100 nurseries that were sold after six weeks at Sh300 per nursery.

“The V4P&P expanded my knowledge and I got answers for my challenges like seed germination and fungal infection,” he says, adding that compost improves soil fertility, soil texture and reduces soil acidity, “which is common with chemical fertiliser”.

“I realised I was using raw manure that affected germination. Raw manure burns the seeds. After composting course, my seed germination rose to 90 percent from as low as 50 percent”. Use of biofungicides or bio-insecticides, also part of regenerative agriculture, also took root after training, helping him to save his managu farm that was prone to fungal infection.

“After training, I was sure what I put in the ground is what I would get”, Mr Atsiaya, a member of Matsigulu Group, says about regenerative agriculture that also helped him to reduce soil erosion through raised beds.

Boaz Were, 52, a member of Ashiswa Farmers Group and VBN coach in Kakamega’s Emukangu village, says there is employment in vegetables. “Even if you don't have land, you can buy vegetables and sell. With vegetables you are doing your own job,” Mr Were says, adding that people should not “look for greener pastures far from your house”.

Apart from the small pieces of land, soil erosion, drought, theft, capital, access to credit, costly seeds, and culture that restricts communal land ownership are some of the challenges.

Ms Lanya, a member of Bio-Intensive Group, grows spider plant, amaranth, kales, managu, Ethiopian kales from which she earns money for school fees and fare to Sigalagala National Polytechnic, where she takes a diploma in social work.

She makes Sh4,000 a week. “It's encouraging because I don't pay rent but now pay my own fare to school and buy things like salt and other spices”.

“I started raised beds farming after a training in Kitale. Actually I am the pro, but ROA [Rural Outreach Africa] has helped to enhance the raised beds method”.

She makes manure from dry maize stocks, cow dung, tithonia leaves for nitrogen, and dry grass.

In Machakos County, Anastacia Nduku, a former banker, grows amaranth, cowpeas and manage on two and a half acres, relying on a water pan to irrigate her farm.

Her farm a VBN demo site for her 35-member farmer group, she is establishing a one million litre water pan.

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