For the past five planting seasons Peter Magana has been growing a local variety of groundnuts in Tharaka Nithi County on his three-acre piece of land, but is yet to break even in the venture he hopes will be his ticket out of poverty.
Coming from a semi-arid area of the expansive county, the farmer is now growing the nutritious crop for his livestock as he looks for an alternative way to utilise his land and transform his life and make ends meet.
Mr Magana’s concern has been the lack of clean planting materials to boost his production and extension services in a region that has good climatic conditions to support the crop.
He is not alone. Ms Priscila Gakii is an unhappy farmer after abandoning sorghum to grow groundnuts because of its cheap production hoping to make a killing.
She planted the crop in her two- acre piece of land at Tunyai location, Tharaka Nithi but come harvest time, her expectations were dampened when she only managed 900kg which she sold to middlemen at a throw-away price of Sh40 per kilo.
However, even as she put all her energy into the growing of the crop she was not sure where she will sell the produce once it was ready for the market.
"I had taken Sh100,000 loan at a local bank and I'm stranded as I fear the bank may attach some of my little movable assets which I used as collateral," laments Ms Gakii.
Apart from the seed and market challenges, some farmers like Mr Anthony Gitonga were shocked when their produce was rejected by a local agro-processing firm due to high levels of aflatoxin.
"I was shocked when my 3,000 tonnes of groundnuts were rejected because of the high level of aflatoxin. I was told they were unfit for human consumption. I could not believe my ears when a sample was tested and the results proved me wrong. I had invested all my resources and nobody came to tell me what agronomical procedures I should follow to avoid aflatoxin," says a dejected Mr Gitonga from Mukothima village, also in Tharaka Nithi.
These are some of the tribulations that hundreds of farmers in Tharaka Nithi and Meru counties have been going through in their quest to break the chain of poverty by planting the crop in vain.
However, their tribulations may soon be a bad memory after Batian Nuts Limited, a local agro-processing company, partnered with Egerton University, Kilimo Trust and the largest incubator for inclusive agri-business in Africa 2SCALE which offers a range of support services to farmers.
The four partners are working to close this yield gap by promoting improved varieties that meet end-user demand and address key challenges including accessibility of seed, markets and cost associated with shelling, which farmers say is very high.
To address some of these issues, Batian and the Njoro-based university are training farmers on seed production and grain production for the market.
Mr James Muhoro, Operations Director at Batian notes that the challenges with the traditional varieties are that they are small-seeded, low-yielding and require more labour. Besides, the poor agronomical process employed by farmers has seen most record massive losses as their produce is rejected due to high aflatoxin levels.
After the new varieties from Egerton University were introduced, groundnut production in the area has since improved significantly.
"With the new varieties, the prices improved. The farmers and buyers love it because it is big-seeded, requires less labour during harvesting and shelling and yields more. This has seen the number of farmers seeking seeds to plant the crop rise," he adds.
And the good news, like wildfire, is quickly spreading with farmers as far as Isiolo, Embu and Murang'a now approaching the firm to grow the crop as they have a ready-made market and are assured of extension services and quality seeds.
According to Prof Paul Kimurto, a crop scientist expert at Egerton University, the biggest challenge farmers face is lack of clean seeds, access to markets and low prices.
"It is now possible for the farmers to break even as the university has developed a drought tolerant and high yielding groundnut variety CG7. All that the farmers need is support from key stakeholders to produce more," he advises.
"This is a win-win situation as Batian will buy the groundnut to reduce aflatoxin contamination and for increasing shelf life while farmers will access clean planting materials from Egerton University to boost their production," says Prof Kimurto.
Batian hopes to replicate its successful approach in macadamia production to step up groundnuts and cashew nuts production through Afrimac Group which serves more than 11,000 smallholder farmers.
Afrimac Group is a consortium of five companies - Afrimac Nut Company, The Village Nut Company, Jumbo Nuts Ltd, and Sagana Nuts Ltd- and exports its products to the US, Europe and Asia.
In 2019 the company paid farmers more than Sh60million for about 450 tonnes delivered. However, in 2020 production was disrupted by outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
The area under groundnut cultivation is rising in the region from 70 acres and the company projects the acreage to hit 500 acres in the next five years. At least 100 farmers are engaged in the venture, but the company is targeting 2,000 farmers.
It has invested in a cashew nut tree nursery and acquired land to set up a peanut processing plant which is expected to be operational by the end of this year.
Mr Muhoro says Batian has invested heavily by setting up a modern aflatoxin laboratory as peanuts have a high level of aflatoxin if they are not well taken care of.
"We follow the farmers from planting to harvesting to ensure they observe strict agronomical practices. Harvesting is a critical time. We have received modern aflatoxin testing machines from Kilimo Trust through the support of 2SCALE. All the nuts we buy from farmers go through a strict testing regime," says Mr Muhoro who was a manager at Kenya Nuts for 18 years.
He adds that to get the aflatoxin-free nuts from the farmers, the company seeks to introduce improved production, harvesting and post-harvest innovations at the farm level and the factory.
Kilimo Trust Country Team Leader Anthony Makona says they are targeting Tharaka Nithi and Meru to promote farmers commercialising the value chain of groundnuts.
"We are keen on groundnuts as it is a key component for nutrition, food and income security. We're partnering with Egerton University and 2SCALE to ensure farmers have access to clean seeds to accelerate the agri-business and create job opportunities for the youth in the region through mechansation services, seeds suppliers, agri-chemical and extension services," notes Mr Makona.
He observes that post-harvesting equipment such as driers, and shellers are critical so that Batian gets aflatoxin free produce for the local and export market.
Extension services support
Agronomist Harun Mbogo is of the view that many farmers end up harvesting aflatoxin-contaminated groundnuts for failing to adhere to strict agronomical procedures from planting to harvesting and post-harvesting.
"Spacing of groundnuts should be 45cm between rows and 15cm between the plants and this will give a farmer a population of 60,000 plants per acre which translates into high yield and more income. Farmers should do proper moulding of soil during first weeding with additional moulding in the second weeding," adds Mr Mbogo.
The farmers, says Mr Mbogo, should harvest when the crop has matured and remove pods and dry them on a canvas for five days followed by winnowing to remove the soil on nut which has aflatoxin causing pathogen.
Batian has received inquiries for extension services from farmers in Isiolo who have abandoned tomato and onion growing and want to embrace groundnut farming due to a ready market.
"We have 40 acres for seed multiplication to supply seeds to other areas like Turkana, Machakos, Embu, Taita Taveta and Isiolo counties," shares Mr Mbogo.
Most farmers are now embracing high-value crops like groundnuts, ditching unprofitable traditional crops such as maize and beans. Groundnuts are an excellent source of cooking oil, animal feed, staple food and can provide a valuable source of proteins, energy, fats and minerals.