Making money with plants


Joseph Kihoro of Intriscape Plant Nursery at his greenhouse in Limuru, Kiambu County on March 10, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

When Joseph Kihoro started Intriscapes Plant Nursery in Limuru County, he had little hope of turning it into a money-spinner.

He had just finished his degree in Ornamental Science and Landscaping.

“Landscaping at the time was done by white people and individual gardeners. Our class was the first pioneer landscaping class that produced Kenyan professional landscapers. And because we weren’t entering into a market with ready jobs, I decided to create my own,” he says.

“We {landscaping graduates} had new information, plant art, and design skills that weren’t there before. We had little time to sit on our hands,” he adds.

Ten years down the line, walking round Intriscapes feels like staring at the colours of the rainbow. The nursery now has over 700 varieties of trees, plants, and flowers arranged so neatly.

The landscaping business venture now keeps giving. Not only financially but it was like water in a sun-scorched land.

He started with one acre of land, which he leased at Sh80,000 and five employees. The farm is now five acres with 15 employees, several greenhouses, and a tidy sum in revenues monthly. It has seedlings of indoor and outdoor plants and turfgrass.

“I don’t remember the number of seedlings I started with, but now they are in hundreds.”

What does it take to build a successful nursery business? “Water is the most important thing,” says the 38-year-old.

“You must have access to a reliable and adequate source of water, free from pollutants. With water, you can farm anywhere in the world, including on top of a rock.”

Intriscapes is well-positioned along the permanent Karura River. Additionally, one also needs passion and patience because running a nursery requires a long-game mentality. Some plants take six months to grow after propagation and a further two years for them to viable for sale.

Finally, professional skills.

“Demand for quality seedlings is skyrocketing. It’s not enough to be a producer. You must understand the science behind the plant – the physical and chemical properties, and nutritional requirements. The foundation of a plant is critical. There’s no shortcut,” he adds.

For capital investment, one needs land, greenhouses, water pumps, and piping systems, and electricity.

Mr Kihoro’s business is a household name supplying plants to garden centres, landscaping companies and many homes.

Like any other business, success is not without setbacks. Pests and diseases being the major ones. “Like Covid-19, the pests and diseases are always mutating. Hence plant production should be done by professionals with mitigation knowledge,” Nancy Kihoro, who is the manager says, adding that they use integrated pest management practices to reduce the reliance on inorganic fertilisers. She studied the same course as Mr Kihoro.

“When doing greenhouse production, chances of finding your hard work reduced to nothing by a tiny creature are very high if you’re not careful,” she says.

The second challenge is the lack of potting materials especially after the ban on polythene bags. They have resorted to using recycled bags from fertilisers whose supply is not enough as Intriscapes does large-scale plant production. The high cost of electricity is another downside denting revenues by Sh15,000 monthly. It is only a “matter of time” until he installs a solar system.

Mr Kihoro sources his plants from anywhere in the country.

“It’s always plant o’clock. There are times my car weighs a tonne because I’ve said hello to every roadside nursery from here to Kisumu, Eldoret, and Mombasa. Plant varieties are as numerous as the sand. There’s always something new to learn and grow,” he says.

He also imports some plant varieties, all of which he propagates producing organic, clean plant species.

In business, you don’t see where you are but where you’re going and as it is now, the future of Intriscapes is bright.

“If you’re looking to invest in the world of gardening, leave garden centres behind and put your money in plant production,” he advises.

There are two reasons for this. As the standards of living improve, gardens are becoming important. Currently, huge real estate investments are driving up demand for plants with their mega gardens. Two, roadside sellers are facing ‘workspace challenges’ as road infrastructure projects eat into their ‘stands’ as seen in the Ngong’ and Kiambu areas.

Plant breeding is also investment-worthy. In his career, Mr Kihoro has travelled to Seychelles, Dubai, and Morocco and seen how fiercely the nations guard their plants’ genetic materials.

“At the moment, finding a plant breeder is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Yet plant species, especially local ones, are becoming extinct,” Mr Kihoro, a self-taught plant breeder says.

Plant breeders are important for maintaining plant species and creating new species, for example, the hydrangea plant among others.

Inspired by such action, he is dedicated one of his greenhouses to mother-plants preservation.

“No amount of money can buy you any of my mother plants,” he says. “Breeders are nature conservationists. I’m doing it for the present and the future generations.”

Mr Kihoro does not have a favourite plant but Anthurium and Azalea flowers light up his world. For his home garden, he seeks to plant 100 percent annuals, which flower completely then die, just like he saw at Miracle Gardens, Dubai.

“I’m very versatile and having one flower forever won’t cut it,” he says.