When Edwin Kipchumba returned to the country three years ago from Australia after graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, most of his relatives knew he would immediately secure a plum white collar job in his line of study.
But for him, the end of his studies at Sydney University beckoned a new beginning of venturing into self-employment.
In 2016, the 24-year-old farmer from Uasin Gishu County went to one of the East Africa Seeds shops and bought two seed varieties of pumpkins — Sugar Baby and Smart Sugar— which are bigger and weightier than the other varieties.
Today, he grows the crop on a two-acre piece of land in Sugoi and supplies tonnes of nutritious pumpkins to refugees in Kakuma. Because he utilises family land, Mr Kipchumba doesn’t have to worry about the lease fees.
“It is important to be educated, but job hunting can also be very frustrating, that’s why I decided to immediately venture into farming, and pumpkin farming has given me that job satisfaction,” he says.
He observes that pumpkins are easy to grow and manage pointing out that they are rarely attacked by diseases. Other than the pumpkin fruits, the crops leaves can also be cooked as vegetables.
He says he plants the crop in a two by two metre spacing and waits for four months to attain full maturity.
Kipchumba cultivates the crop twice a year. Sugar Baby variety weighs between seven to 27 kilos when mature while Smart Sugar weighs seven to 18 kilos. He sells his harvests to the United Nations’ refugee camps in Kakuma and South Sudan as well as to the locals and other retailers.
“I harvest tonnes of the fruit, so the organisation comes for them in lorries. They buy between 500 and 1,000 pieces of the fruit. I sell a kilo at Sh65,”he says.
With a ready market for his commodity, Mr Kipchumba’s only worry is meeting the demand and securing a licence for value-addition.
In August 2017, he got the idea of drying pumpkins and grinding them for flour from Australia, backed by his Nandi tradition. He’s now awaiting the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) certification to supply the flour to supermarkets.
To make a pumpkin flour, he chops the pumpkins into small pieces, dries them after which he mills them. The flour can be blended with millet or sorghum for making a nutritious porridge.
“Currently I sell this flour to locals at Sh320 per kilo wholesale. The retail price is Sh400 but I need government certification to attract buyers in chain stores,” he says.
Besides, he sells pumpkin seeds at Sh100 for 13 seeds.
From two acres, Kipchumba harvests at least six tonnes of pumpkins and sees no reason to move around knocking doors begging for engineering opportunities.
To get the best out of the crop, a farmer needs not to use fertilises, he warns.
“The best is animal manure. Organically produced crops are very nutritious and in high demand,” he says, adding that one pumpkin plant can produce between seven and eight fruits.
To improve his farm efficiency, he has employed four farm hands who help him with the job, especially milling pumpkin flour.
Mr Kipchumba says while pumpkin farming might be profitable, there are a number of challenges such as pests and diseases, which attack the crop.
“White flies and blight are very common but I have been simply using pesticides from local agro-vets to fight them,” he says.
Timothy Munywoki, a senior agronomist at Amiran-Kenya, says the best spacing for pumpkin is considered one metre from crop to crop and two metres between rows. A kilo of pumpkin seeds is sufficient enough for farming one acre.
The expert also notes that pumpkins can be grown under irrigation but the watering intervals depends on soil type.
“The farmer should check the moisture content before irrigation. Farmers can install drip irrigation which will help in saving water loss especially in arid and semi-arid areas. An average interval of 3 days during dry weather is recommended. However, during flowering and fruit setting, the crop will require relatively high amounts of water,” remarks Mr Munywoki.
He also urges farmers to conduct soil tests before embarking on farming so that they are able to know the type of fertiliser they should apply.
The expert also noted that crop rotation is the best way to minimise pests and diseases, pointing out that pumpkin farmers should be discouraged from growing pumpkins on a field where cucurbits had been grown earlier.
“There are pests such as the African melon ladybirds which are reddish in colour with a number of black spots on the wing cases. They can damage leaves and cause the plant to dry up.