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Agri-tech improves smallholder farmers’ household incomes

Agritech pic 2

Lake Basin Agro-tech chief executive Vincent Odhiambo displays the drone trailer on September 7, 2021. PHOTO | FRANCIS MUREITHI | NMG

Summary

  • Harvesting the hardy crop has been simplified by the multi-grain thresher.
  • The traditional method of shelling is labour intensive and does not remove any remaining seeds.
  • A motorbike drone trailer goes for Sh75,000 while a multi-grain sheller goes for Sh55,000.

A middle-aged woman who is an amaranth farmer from Ringa Kakelo in Homa Bay looks jovial as she harvests the crop’s grains at her four acres farm. She has all the reasons to smile because after harvesting it will take less than a week to thresh the grain with a multi-thresher and the bumper harvest will fetch her between Sh250 and Sh300 per kilo, a price that motivates her to wake up every morning to go to the farm.

“When I started this venture in 2016 harvesting and threshing the grain was a very stressful period but I’m happy things have changed as I’m using a multi-grain thresher to speed up the harvesting work,” says Ms Angeline Opiyo.

“Food processors who used to have issues with my amaranth grains are now happy I’m delivering clean produce and this has increased their confidence,” explains Ms Opiyo who is a retired primary school teacher.

“Amaranth is now like my retirement pension. I harvest between 35 to 40 bags weighing 90kgs each which if I sell at an average of Sh300 per kilo this gives me a gross income of about Sh300,000 after four months and this is good money for me as I have two children at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology,” said Ms Opiyo.

She is not alone. Her neighbour George Agong’, another farmer says harvesting the hardy crop has been simplified by the multi-grain thresher he borrows from his neighbour during harvesting season.

“I grow two acres and after harvesting, I use a multi-grain thresher which I borrow from my neighbour at a small fee. I don’t worry about harvesting the amaranth once the seeds begin to readily fall from the tassels the way I used to do by rubbing the seed heads over a bucket to remove them. I’m hoping to buy mine [multi-grain thresher] through my merry-go-round group when it’s my time to receive the money,” says Mr Agong’.

He adds: “The traditional method of shelling is labour intensive and does not remove any remaining seeds. I used to winnow out the chaff from the seed several times which was time-consuming.”

“I had been planting maize which was not doing well in this area. I no longer plant maize because the profit I get after selling amaranth I buy maize flour and blend it with amaranth grains and this has improved the health of my three children,” he notes.

In 2018 the government moved to stem over-reliance on maize and subsequent consumption of staple food ugali by introducing a policy to push maize millers to blend maize flour with other local nutritious grains to curb malnutrition.

Among those recommended for the fortification were amaranth grains and since then farmers embraced the crop which was previously regarded as a common weed to make quick and good cash.

According to nutritionists, consumption of amaranth in the country could aid in fighting malnutrition as amaranth grains have a protein content of 12-13 percent, higher than that of most cereal grains making it the most sort after grain globally.

At the same time, nutritionists recommend grains for cancer and diabetic patients owing to their rich protein, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron content as well as their fibre along with several other important micro-nutrients. It can be used to make animal feeds and skin cosmetics.

Transforming lives

The grains can be roasted and eaten or grounded to produce flour to make chapati, porridge, cakes, cookies, bread muffins, pasta pancakes, crackers, and fortify maize meal flour.

The green fresh leaves can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable as they are a good source of protein, pro-vitamin A, vitamin C, and fibre.

At the busy Rabour trading centre along the Kisumu-Nairobi highway, an army of young boda-boda are anxiously waiting for clients under the scorching sun. Most of them make between Sh200-Sh500 per day due to stiff competition.

Many young men in the region are abandoning farms due to the allure of easy money from the business.

However, scrutiny reveals that one of the boda boda riders, his motorbike looks an odd one out as it has a drone trailer that enables Boda Boda riders to transport farm inputs into the farm and also deliver farm produce to the market.

“I used to spend the whole day earning Sh200 due to stiff competition but since I bought a trailer I earn between Sh1,000 and Sh1,200 per day as I deliver farm produce to the market,” says Mr Joseph Onyango.

At the Nyagande trading centre in Nyando constituency, Ms Priscilla Atienio is cooking fish on the roadside using a fabricated stove (jiko) that is using rice husks.

“A bag of charcoal goes for between Sh2,000 and Sh2,500 which I cannot afford but since I started using this stove I have saved money as I only use rice husks to cook my fried fish and chips,” says Ms Atieno.

These are some of the farmers in western Kenya who are transforming their lives through technologies that have been developed by Lake Basin Agro-tech to drive agriculture activities by providing them with mechanisation solutions.

“The project, which was started in 2019 has enabled the growth of green amaranth as a value chain as farmers are put into groups of 15 and provided with inputs and services to enable them to produce green amaranth and also provided them with technological solutions that make their work more efficient,” notes Mr Vincent Odhiambo, the founder and Chief Executive of Lake Basin Agro-tech, a social enterprise established in 2018 to bridge in the gap between research and the market.

“Apart from multi-grain thresher and energy-saving stove, other technologies that we have introduced include the walking tractors and the technical support for the production of green amaranth,” said Mr Odhiambo.

Mr Odhiambo adds that Lake Basin Agro-tech has also developed a water pump that is driven by a motorbike to woo young people back to the farms during the off-peak season to produce more food and diversify their sources of income.

Agri-tech pic

Lake Basin Agro-tech Chief Executive Vincent Odhiambo (right) showing a customer some of the organic fertiliser made by the firm at their Masogo offices in Kisumu. PHOTO | FRANCIS MUREITHI | NMG

He reveals that through their programme, last year farmers produced green amaranth worth Sh2.4million.

The firm started with 50 farmers but today it has over 300 farmers growing green amaranth which has boosted food security, nutrition and improved their economic value.

Currently, the social enterprise firm is working with Kilimo Trust to look at ways in which it could help farmers recycle the rice by-products which include rice husks and straws.

“Our objective is to ensure we return the rice-byproducts to the soil through the making of biochar. Biochar improves the soil structure, and adds micronutrients which are lacking in most chemical fertilisers used in rice farms,” explains Mr Odhiambo.

To achieve this goal, Lake Basin Agro-tech is working with Egerton University to make organic and foliar fertilisers that are sprayed on vegetables through a process called vermin composting where it has introduced special worms into shredded rice straws and mix it with animal manure.

Organic manure

Dr Joseph Mafurah, an organic agriculture specialist from the Department of Crops, Horticulture and Soils, Egerton University, says making organic manure can be a money-minting business if practised well.

“For quality products, everything should be organic. They should not use any chemicals unless it is organically produced. The manure should be turned regularly to allow circulation of air and add water which is food for microorganisms,” he states.

Dr Mafurah notes organic fertilisers provide comprehensive nutrition to crops, promoting microbial breeding as they improve the soil’s physical and chemical properties and biological activities.

Lake Basin Agro-tech has partnered with Olex Techno, a local agritech start-up company that has gained a reputation in the region as the machinery solution provider to thousands of smallholder farmers.

“Across the region, smallholder farmers are struggling with lack of affordable farming machinery inputs to boost their farming and food production,” said Mr Odundo who is the founder of the enterprise.

Some of the agricultural tools he fabricates include the weeding machine, ploughing machine, water pumps, multi-purpose chaff-cutter and grain sheller, wind-water pumps, solar water pumps, maize sheller, sorghum sheller, motorbike trailer and sisal machine among others.

He has also developed a stove (jiko) in conjunction with Kilimo Trust that uses rice husks and the burnt product known as biochar can be used to make organic fertilizer to improve soil fertility and boost production.

That stove which goes for Sh2,500 will help manage rice husk waste and reduce the cost of cooking and save the environment as women will no longer go for long distances to look for firewood.

A motorbike drone trailer goes for Sh75,000 while a multi-grain sheller goes for Sh55,000.

The firm is also developing a bird scaring technology that would be used in rice and wheat farms and provide bird-scaring services to enable farmers to keep off the birds that destroy their crops.

“We want to utilise the good ideas which are generated in our learning institutions, the research projects that are developed by students, researchers, scientists and we do something meaningful to solve some of our pressing problems,” notes Mr Odhiambo.

Big mechanisation focus

Mr Odhiambo says he injected Sh500,000 as seed capital to start the company in Kisumu City and has now extended its services to Homabay and Migori counties and has employed 20 employees.

The firm venture has indirectly employed rice husks collectors, biochar carbonators and created new revenue streams for rice millers who sell the husks and straws to players along the value chain.

“We have created job opportunities in mechanisation big focus mechanisation service team who earn between Sh5,000 and Sh10,000 every day,” said Mr Odhiambo.

“I started Lake Basin Agro-tech after injecting Sh500,000 seed capital and Sh750,000 initial funding from the University of Hartford, a private university in West Hartford, Connecticut in the US,” says Mr Odhiambo.

Apart from Mr Odhiambo other directors include Ms Mercy Chweya (Director finance), Mr James Onyango Muma (director mechanisation), Ms Christine Kutenzia (human resource director) and Mr Alex Odundo (director innovations).

“Our vision in the next 10 years is to transform Lake Basin Agro-tech into an innovation hub where any innovator with ideas could walk in and develop them to boost agriculture activities and fight poverty in the region,” said Mr Odhiambo.

Some of the challenges the firm faces include low uptake of local technology, lack of capital and stringent approvals from the government.

“Kenyans would be quick to buy cheap Chinese products and shun local products that are more durable and efficient,” said Mr Odhiambo.

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