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Sisal farming restores hope to arid Tharaka

By Muthengi Muthomi
Agnes Wanja (left) and Mary Gakii attend to a sisal farm in Kithangani area Tharaka-Nithi County. The crop has boosted the area’s economy. (Muthengi Muthomi Standard)

Kithangani village, a semiarid area in Chuka Sub County, Tharaka-Nithi County is little known and people believe that it has little to o­ffer in the agriculture sector.

Most farms in Kithangani are usually bare unless during rainy season when the area receives little showers that enables growth of sorghum save for the few farmers who embraced sisal farming eight years ago who are now smiling all the way to the bank.

Mary Gakii, chairperson of the group of 30 farmers group told Mt. Kenya Star during a visit at her farm that with sisal, they are assured of a harvest all the year round because even in temperatures as high as 35 degrees the crop still does very well.

She said before introduction of sisal in the area, residents relied on little relief food given by government and could not take their children beyond class eight due to lack of fees.

“Before we learnt of growing sisal in our harsh climate, we always pleaded with government to help us with relief food and we could not educate our children but today, we eat well, dress well and meet all our domestic needs,” said Gakii.

 She said after introduction of the crop by their late chief, Nyamu Ragwa who also helped them with seedlings or bulbs, the few locals came together and raised Sh200,000 capital that they used in empowerment.

 Agnes Wanja, another group member said unlike other crops that require fertilizer to grow healthy or pesticide to fight pests, sisal is relatively free from pests and diseases.

 Besides, the crop has low water requirements thus surviving with the little showers experienced in the months of April and December.

Sisal which is grown from seedlings or propagated from the bulbils is given a depth of 3cm and spacing of 3.5m by 0.95m when planting.

 With the spacing, at least 3000 plants can be grown in one hectare and give bumper yield for a period of 8-15 years before production starts going down.

 For lack of machines, Kithangani farmers harvest sisal manually using a knife when they reach about one metre long and one cuts 2.5 – 5cm from the plant.

Once harvested, the green outer of the leaf is removed through a process called decortication using a machine and the waste is used as animal feed and manure.

The white fibres are dried, brushed and used to prepare woven textile items such as baskets ropes. The group was supported by Upper Tana Natural Resources Management project (UTaNRMP) to acquire one decorticating machine which they use as a group.

Wanja said their sisal is a bit rough making it hard for them to have di­fferent varieties of products translating to lower returns but they have aspirations of venturing into high value markets by further adding value to our products, a thing they believe was the only way to improving their venture profitability.

 She said their immediate need was to acquire both a sisal yarn machine which goes for approximately Sh350,000 and a twine machine for Sh 450,000 for making sisal threads.

Due to the challenge of yarning they partnered with Kaumo Mugirirwa Women Group comprising of elderly women some above 80 years use the threads to come up with attractive products like baskets (kiondo).

 Market for Kiondo has gone up following the burn of plastic carriers and they hope with time, all people will turn to their product when government completely curbs illegal nylon.

 Joyce Kanga the chair Kaumo Mugirirwa Women group said they also want to align themselves with the country’s 2030 vision that puts emphasis on value addition of Kenyan agricultural products and targets to import their products in future.

 Nyaga believes that there was a lot to be done on sisal as the crop occupies 6th position among fibre plants and is classified as one of the world’s most important natural fibre.  

Globally, Kenya is ranked third in sisal production after Brazil and China though 80 per cent of the Kenya’s sisal is exported raw. There is need to add some value for better earning.

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