Seated on the seventh floor at Kilimo House, Nairobi, it would be hard to tell that Anne Nyaga, the chief administrative secretary for Agriculture ministry, has been a farmer for over 10 years, long before she knew she would sit in this office.
She has tried her hand on growing French beans, watermelons, tomatoes, cassava, avocados, and seedless lemons. She has also reared goats for breeding and cattle.
“I started farming in 2008 with Sh20,000 that I had saved from working in a family-owned hardware store,” she says.
She started with three acres of land in Embu.
She had just graduated with a degree in biomedical science and technology and was hoping to get a job at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe) or Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri).
A few months passed without a formal job, so she joined the family business. She quit because it was not well-paying and started supplying vegetables to hotels.
“I would buy vegetables from the market, repackage and sell. The margins were small because I wasn’t the producer and my profits were being eaten by the amount I paid to transport the vegetables,” she says.
“When you supply to institutions, some pick on credit, eating into your capital. So, I decided to go into farming to increase my gains,” she adds.
She started growing French beans and baby corn for export. She would be contracted by an exporter for a year. At the same time, she was transporting milk and yogurt to supermarkets.
But even though exporters provide a ready market, it is not all rosy.
Sometimes exporters would reject her produce, fail to pick it as stipulated in the contract, citing global price fluctuations.
“When you get into a contract with an exporter, you know you’ll sell at a certain set price. Then they change the price. Sometimes they give you back your produce and you’re told, ‘this rejected lot was yours’ and you have no way of verifying that it wasn’t from another farmer,” Ms Nyaga says.
The rejected produce meant no pay even after spending thousands of shillings in labour, inputs, and transport.
“You end up feeding the produce to cows or pigs. At times we would harvest five tonnes per planting season. I would incur very huge losses,” she says.
She went into large-scale farming of watermelons. The red fruit also has its fair share of disadvantages. It is perishable and it easily floods in the market, especially if all farmers harvest at the same time.
When she began growing watermelons, a kilo fetched Sh20 to Sh35. She could harvest 50,000 kilos. To get good markets, she relied on wholesalers in farmers’ markets or orders from stores such as Zucchini.
“The earnings are dependent on the market and the season. But the secret lies in maximising yields while using little investment,” she says, adding that at one point she also developed a manual for watermelons, tomatoes, and onions, with the help of technical officers, for sale.
Later, she diversified into the transportation of horticultural produce, dairy products and making hay.
“Now I also keep cows and breed goats. I have a feedlot. I am also growing sweet potatoes, watermelons and avocados,” she says.
Her farming has been through irrigation.
“The irrigation system is expensive because of the high cost of fuel so sometimes I plan the planting to coincide with the rainy season,” she says.
So how did she plot a career in government?
“One evening in 2017, I received a phone call from Embu governor Martin Wambora. He said he had seen the work I was doing on the farm and asked if I could join his government after the elections in the agriculture docket,” she says.
She did not finish the five-year term and was appointed by the President on January 14, 2020, to serve in the national government.
Ms Nyaga says farming was previously seen as a career for idle people, but not anymore.
“Venturing into agriculture as a youth is now easier than back in our days because there are financing options without collateral and training,” she says, adding that reforms on minimal earnings are geared towards ensuring farmers get better prices.
“We don’t want to associate farming with poverty,” she says.
She singles out the perennial problem of farm produce flooding the market.
“It’s good to diversify and explore external and better markets through forming associations to aggregate for volume and sell through co-operatives. This helps do away with brokers. People can make money out of farming. You just need to understand what is working or not and find the market,” she says.