- The couple blazed the sunflower trail 53 years ago, many years before a strong wind of environmental consciousness swept across the country.
- Kunyaa cultivates the crop twice a year alongside maize, beans and peas in two farmlands measuring 18 acres in total.
In the last few decades, Muvea Kunyaa has seen the yield of his farmland increase and then go into decline, weighed down by the vagaries of climate change.
Today, the 72-year-old peasant farmer is happy, being part of a growing rural farming community in Kitui that has embraced malaa, the local name for sunflower, and advanced the production of the cash crop by manufacturing and marketing edible oil from the seeds.
"Intercropping malaa with maize, beans, and peas is the new normal in this region. When the other crops fail due to drought-as is often the case nowadays-we live off sunflower: to extract cooking oil and feed chicken,” Mr Kunyaa tells the Enterprise as he watched as his wife, Pauline, winnows dried sunflower seeds at their Kataa Village in Mwingi West Constituency.
The couple blazed the sunflower trail 53 years ago, many years before a strong wind of environmental consciousness swept across the country.
The wind has seen environmentalists, the government and a plethora of non-governmental organisations push farmers in arid regions to adopt the sunflower value chain alongside green grams, fodder farming and beekeeping.
Manufacturer of edible oils and soap, Bidco, has contracted Kenyan sunflower farmers through Safaricom’s DigiFarm to source the raw material. Mr John Kariuki, the head of agribusiness division at Bidco reveals that out of the 10,000 metric tonnes of sunflower seeds the company requires annually to make its products, 2,000 metric tonnes is set aside for local farmers.
As a champion farmer, Mr Kunyaa remains the king of sunflower seed production in the region where the sun burns fiercely.
Although sunflower is largely resistant to pests and diseases compared to other crops, farmers are advised to brace for ravenous birds which attack the crop as it matures. Mr Kunyaa cultivates the crop twice a year alongside maize, beans and peas in two farmlands measuring 18 acres in total.
For decades, the trained mason used the seeds to feed his chicken, the flower remains to feed cows and the stalks as firewood. He sold the surplus seeds to chicken and pig farmers for a song. Sometimes he even doled out sacks of the seeds to his neighbors, friends and passersby for free.
Mr Kunyaa only stuck with the crop because his household lived off sunflower seeds when drought struck, dwindling the production of maize, the staple food in the region.
The fortune of the father of 15, and that of hundreds of his neighbours who had reluctantly added the crop to their portfolio changed in 2007 when members of the Catholic Women Association at the local Nguutani Catholic Mission bought equipment for extruding oil from sunflower seeds.
The electric oil press machine extracts oil from the seeds into a container as it also churns out black residue which is highly sought by pig and chicken farmers. A kilo of the residue fetches between Sh15 and Sh20, depending on the season.
The church charges Sh10 to extract oil from a kilo of sunflower seeds. According to the farmers, 100 kilogrammes of sunflower seeds yield 60 litres of oil on average.
The oil at this stage is black as it is mixed with impurities. It goes through a boiler to get refined before it is packaged in containers ready for the market.
There is room to spice up the oil using assorted spices at the refining stage, something the Catholic Women Association at the Nguutani Catholic Mission is exploring as a value addition strategy.
The cooking oil extraction plant, which was ideally meant to line the pockets of the worshippers with money, spurred the uptake of the cash crop in the rural farming community. The campaign got a shot on the arm when the county government came on board. A handful of NGOs promoting adaptation to climate change in arid regions have also stepped up the campaign.
A director in the department of agriculture in Kitui County government, Mr Francis Kitoo, says there are more than 6,500 growers of sunflower across Kitui.
“The small-scale farmers mainly use the sunflower seeds to formulate chicken feeds. Some are extracting cooking oil from seeds,” he said.
To further mainstream the cash crop, the Catholic Women Association at the Nguutani Catholic Mission buys sunflower seeds from farmers, starting with its more than 700 members who are spread across Nguutani Location, which they process into oil for sale. They buy a kilo of sunflower seeds at Sh20 and sell a litre of refined edible oil at Sh150.
Father Robert Kalima, head of the Catholic mission says not only is Sunflower oil affordable, but also healthy since its organic, which has seen more farmers take up the crop as the organic products market continues to grow.
"Many farmers in this region now make their own sunflower oil for domestic use and for sale. The many uses of the crop has endeared it among local framers,” he adds, celebrating Mr Kunyaa as a champion farmer and a role model to scores.