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Yes, there are many ripe doors in organic farming

By Patrick Kariuki
A strawberry farmer on her farm in Ol Jororok village in Nyandarua County. (File, Standard)

1. You have vast knowledge in farming. Share with us your background...

I am an agronomist with experience in the flower industry. I however resigned from the flower industry to concentrate on agribusiness after discovering potential in sweet potatoes and strawberry farming. So I am now a full time farmer of these crops. When I am not farming I provide training to youth on how to make it in agribusiness predominantly in Western and Nyanza regions. I am now making a good living from farming sweet potatoes and strawberries.

2.  How can farmers maximise returns?

Well, the first thing farmers need to do is give the market what the market wants. In other words, they need to practise market-oriented farming. Farmers must grow what the customer wants. The main challenge therefore is one of information. Farmers countrywide are in dire need of market information. Market research is what informed my decision to grow sweet potatoes and strawberries. So you may wonder, how can farmers get the data they need to make profitable decisions? Well, there are many digital tools available today such as MFarm which aggregate individual farmers produce and find buyers. However, many farmers in rural areas are yet to get on the digital bandwagon.

3. What are the advantages of sweet potatoes from a dietary and commercial perspective?

Well, sweet potatoes can be processed into flour. This helps reduce the wheat content used in the baking industry. One can make bread and cakes from flour that is 60 per cent wheat and 40 per cent sweet potato, for example. This helps cut down on sugar consumption because sweet potato provides natural sugar. The raw sweet potato paste is good for making biscuits and bread. One can also mash it to make a delightful sweet potato smoothie. In the UK and USA, sweet potato is widely consumed. I was in the UK recently and I was served sweet potato soup for the first time and it was fantastic. We need to diversify our diet in Kenya and sweet potatoes can help get us there.

4.  What opportunities do strawberries have to offer farmers?

The market wants strawberries that meet specific, defined quality standards which small scale farmers are often not able to meet. It is difficult to grow one acre of strawberries due to the labour intensive nature of the crop; this often leads to production quality shortfalls. However, there is a solution available to farmers in the form of vertical (non-hydroponic) gardening which is more sustainable and profitable. For example, a 1m by 30 m plot will produce about 100 strawberries under normal methods. But through vertical gardening, one is able to produce 830 to 1,200 strawberries on same piece of land. With vertical gardening, a quarter acre piece of land will produce same amount of strawberries that a one acre plot would produce under normal gardening. That’s a fourfold increase. Vertical gardening helps maximise absorption of nutrients and water. Therefore vertical gardening of strawberries will enable farmers maximise returns. As for finances, a kilo of strawberries goes for about Sh350 minimum. The strawberries produced by Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology earn as much as Sh2,000 a kilo due to their quality and juiciness. 

5. Can a Kenyan farmer engage in organic farming and be profitable?

Yes they can, but it is not a walk in the park. Pure organic products are more expensive and therefore offer higher profits to farmers. The pure organic products produced in Kenya are exported to Europe where they fetch premium prices. In our market, there is reluctance among buyers to pay those prices.

6. Let’s talk about the challenges...

There are severe challenges to organic farming for Kenyan farmers. First, is the issue of prices. Second, what are the standards for organic farming in Kenya? We have no system that makes a product organic. Traceability is a serious problem. It is impossible to verify the veracity of the claim that a product is organic. Third, authentic organic farming comes with a high initial cost of investment. The issue of manure is a particularly sensitive one because there aren’t enough animals to create manure. Also, our farmers often use raw manure on the farm which is definitely not recommended and possibly dangerous. Manure needs three to six months to become compost, while buying humus (compost) is expensive.

There is also the issue of land. First, the land needs to lie fallow for about 10 years to become virgin land so that one begins organic farming on a clean slate. The land also needs to be big enough to ensure no contamination from neighbouring farms which may not be observing the same standards. For example, to protect your organic farm, it is advised to do agroforestry on the boundaries.

It is possible to make money from organic farming when done right, but this is out of reach for majority of small holder farmers due to above reasons and is not a realistic option.

7.  Pesticides have recently become a sensitive topic in this country due to alleged links to cancer. Should pesticides be banned? What is the best policy for pesticide use in Kenya?

Integrated pest management is the right approach to pest control in the farm. This refers to a combination of chemical use and organic or traditional methods to keep pests off the farm. It is impossible to eliminate pesticides which will always remain a necessary evil. Spraying chemicals on crops doesn’t mean we are necessarily going to die or get sick. It takes about 25 years of research and testing before a chemical product is released onto the market. Chemical pesticides do not cause any danger to humans if properly used and instructions are followed.

8. How do you ensure proper use of pesticides?

 There is a serious challenge of information and ethics in the Kenyan market. Majority of pesticides in our Agrovets are not registered for use on food crops. Instead, they are for ornamental use. In other words, our large flower industry is the proper customer for these pesticides. However, our farmers like to use these chemicals due to lack of understanding and because they quickly get rid of stubborn pests due to their strength. This is how our consumers are exposed to harmful chemicals. Regulatory bodies should actively regulate what the farmer should use. Stockists should have guidelines on what to stock and what not to stock and avoid selling expired chemicals to farmers who may not tell the difference.

The bottom line is to follow instructions on the labels. Every chemical has a pre-harvest interval. When a farmer sprays a crop just a few days before harvest, he is exposing the consumer to risk because the active molecule of the chemical will still be on the surface of the crop which will later be ingested by humans.

I highly recommend farmers use a sprayer that atomises the pesticide. It will cost them about Sh7,500. Atomisation means the pesticide is broken down to fine particles. This greatly lowers the quantity of pesticide sprayed on the crop. Current knapsack sprayers apply high doses of pesticides on the crops which leads to chemical resistance.

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