Entasopia is a small trading post in Nguruman less than 50 kilometres from Magadi Town, in Kajiado County. Getting there is usually a tortuous affair; The entire region is semi-arid and rugged and inhabited by the mostly pastoral Maasai.
This rural community is surrounded by the imposing Nguruman Escarpment, at whose foot Entasopia and Oloibortoto rivers flow. They are tributaries of the Ewaso Ng'iro.
During rainy seasons, the two rivers originating from the escarpment, often bring with them flashfloods from as far away as Narok. The floods inundate their banks, cutting the rural community off from civilisation. During a dry spell, however, the rivers shrink to a trickle.
While the floods bring destructions, there is a positive side to them. A section of the pastoralists have taken advantage of the floods to start growing crops.
A perennially dry, yet somewhat cosmopolitan area, majority of residents in Nguruman are expected to be nomadic livestock keepers.
But some of the pastoralists are changing the script, practising crop cultivation while keeping a few relatively productive herds. And their influence is swaying the rest of the pastoralists into crop growing.
The farmers mainly use water from the two seasonal rivers to grow their crops through furrow irrigation.
Furrows are cheaper to make, compared to drip irrigation which they say is quite expensive.
On the outskirts of Entasopia shopping centre, fruits and other crops abound.
Bahati Kengei, is one of the farmers. He grows pawpaw on about two acres of his farm. He also has mangoes, and bananas.
Mr Kengei, 46, used to work at Tata Chemicals but lost his job in 2013.
After the job loss, he briefly ran a small eatery at the company, where he made a few coins until his leasehold expired. Then he had to vacate.
He then went into farming and as they say, the rest is history. He now has more than 500 pawpaw trees of the dwarf Calina papaya (Carica papaya) variety. He planted the first batch of 300 seedlings of the fruit in February 2019 and his first papaya harvest came in December the same year.
“I now pick the fruits every week. I harvest from 900 kilogrammes to more than one tonne of papaya at each harvest,” he says.
He however notes that market for the produce has been his biggest headache. Initially, he says, only brokers, specifically from Magadi to Nguruman, bought the fruits. And they dictated the prices.
With little or no sway in determining a favourable price, the farmers just accepted what the middlemen offered. Insisting on prices not favourable with the brokers, Mr Kengei says, meant one will find no market for their produce.
The brokers, he say, bought the fruits at between Sh1,000 and Sh1,300 per crate.
The farmers resolved to cut out the exploitative brokers and look for better markets. His buyer is now from Nairobi who purchases papayas at Sh30 per kilo.
Another challenge the farmers face is transport.
“Roads here are almost nonexistent. They are virtually impassable and time and again the rickety bridges on them are overwhelmed and swept away by treacherous floods. It is difficult to persuade someone to come from far away for the fruits here,” he says.
Mr Kengei’s farm manager, Meshack Mukabi, says the two rivers have been their lifeline. They use canals to harvest water from either of the two rivers, he explains.
“Farmers can then dig mini-canals branching from their closest feeder-canal and direct the water to their farms,” says Mr Mukabi.
“The farmers share the water in turns,” he says, adding some growers redirect the water into their farms when it is not their turn to and no one is watching.”
This often results into internal strife, he notes.
Mr Mukabi cites these internal water wars, pests and diseases, and poor access roads as the major challenges they face.
Mr Kengei has sunk a borehole to address water supply issues especially when it is meagre and the community is squabbling over it.
Iddi Kathele, another a farmer, says he has witnessed the benefits of fruit’s cultivation.
The farmer, who also has sizable tracts of land in the area sitting idle and overgrown with the voracious Prosopis juliflora (Mathenge), is among those who have joined the pawpaw farming bandwagon.
“I am looking to invest several acres of the land in pawpaw farming. The crop, I realise, does not require much in terms of input and still yet is rewarding,” he says.
Agronomist, Ann Macharia says pawpaw thrives in well-drained fertile soils, but adds that farmers should watch out for waterlogging.
Backing drip irrigation, Dr Hesbon Otieno, a water resources expert from the School of Engineering at the South Eastern Kenya University (SEKU), says although farmers have experienced a level of success with furrow irrigation, drip would be a much better option.
“Given that the region is perennially dry and rainfall is sporadic, the farmers would ideally also invest in water storage mechanisms including dams and water pans, to conserve as much water as possible when it is available and certain that majority of the rivers crisscrossing the area may be seasonal,” he says.
Drip irrigation, he adds, minimises waste of water. The farmers could invest in simple and even modified drip implements and probably just spend cash on buying the required nozzles to effectively irrigate their farms.
“But then again since furrows works well for them, they can still use the system since it also could have its benefits and is probably the mode these farmers are accustomed to and find affordable,” he says.