Save for the hawk-eyed, armed officer who scrutinises every person entering or leaving the maximum security facility, you would be forgiven if you didn’t notice you have arrived at Embu Prison.
There are no inmates in sight. Instead, a unique distraction stands on the left as you walk towards the main building; the prison farm.
The 25-acre prison farm speaks of agricultural abundance with vegetables including sukuma wiki, cabbage, spinach, managu (African nightshade), onions and capsicum growing.
The healthy and alluring vegetable plots, which from a distance appear like a giant green carpet, have an intricate network of drip irrigation passing near them. Tens of inmates are working on the vegetables. They seem to do it with a passion.
The farm manager, Superintendent Moses Kiburi says sukuma wiki is their largest crop.
They harvest 1,000kgs of sukuma wiki every day. “The harvest exceeds the inmates’ consumption by far. We supply the rest to other prisons in Mt Kenya region and Nairobi. Traders also purchase the vegetables from us and supply to markets in Embu, Meru, Nyeri and Nairobi, among other places,” says Kiburi.
He reveals that total sales from the farm last year was Sh9 million. The money goes directly to the government’s revenue revolving fund and some of it channeled back to the prison to fund their programmes.
Apart from acting as a source of revenue for the government, the prison farm also acts as a training ground for the inmates about farming. “Inmates are trained in crops and livestock farming for sustenance when they leave prison,” he says. According to Kiburi, the idea of starting the farm sprung from the hundreds of inmates who needed to eat vegetables every day for their nutritional needs. It would have been costly for the prison to buy the vegetables from outside. Basing on the farm’s success story, Kiburi revealed that the prison management plans to expand farming land to 40 acres.
“Our unique advantage is that we have a large land, plentiful of water and a large workforce from the inmates,” he says, adding that every day 60 inmates work at the farm. Although water is not a scarce commodity here, the use of drip irrigation system minimises water wastage as each plant gets only what it requires.
An inmate, Patrick Kimathi exuded hope that the skills he had acquired in farming would be useful throughout his life.
“We have been trained on tending vegetables right from the nursery to the fields and to harvesting. When I leave prison, I know I will become a successful vegetable farmer,” he says.
Even traders count the prison farm as a blessing compared to sourcing their stock from other farms. Lawrence Musyoka, a trader who lives in Majimbo estate of Embu County, said he buys a kilogram of sukuma wiki at Sh15 from the prison farm, which is cheaper compared to other farms and enables him earn good profit.
“Even for my family’s consumption, I prefer buying from the prison as their vegetables are healthier,” he says.
Kiburi urges Embu farmers to open their eyes to the potential in vegetable farming instead of just relying on muguka (khat). Muguka is one of the most popular and lucrative crops in the lower part of the county, yet ironically the area is severely affected by drought and famine.
“Muguka provides money to the farmers. They should also set a small portion of their farm to grow food crops such as vegetables,” says Kiburi.