Chege Muigai, September 18, 2011
Hellen Syombua is a poor woman despite owning a 12-acre farm in Mavoloni, Yatta. Her orange, mango and banana plants look sickly and uninspiring.
Ms Syombua says she needs help from well-wishers to survive. But this is not the way it has always been.
Through the 1980s and early 1990s, Ms Syombua and her deceased husband used to harvest sacks of mangoes and oranges for sale at the Nairobi markets until changing weather patterns and a decreasing soil fertility pushed her into the deep wallows of poverty.
Farming has been evolving and many farmers, like Ms Syombua, still hold on to traditional farming techniques thus denying themselves improved or stable yields.
Due to climate change in particular, some farmers are opting for fast maturing drought resistant crop varieties.
The rising threat of pests also led to the need for more hardy varieties to ensure good returns from agriculture.
And to resolve the emerging hurdles in agricultural, a farm in Kabati, 60km north of Nairobi off the Nyeri highway, is out to offer solutions and make farming a profitable business and boost production.
Within a 40-acre farm, Aberdares Technologies, demonstrates how agriculture can become big business again stemming the tide of rural-urban migration while also producing enough for this country's food requirements as well as for export.
The farm's production manager James Ndegwa says it is a big shame for a country with great agricultural potential to overshadowed by Israel, Egypt and the Netherlands, which have reclaimed wastelands from the sea or deserts and made them productive.
"Aberdare is bringing that kind of expertise to our farmers with the laboratory development and importation of high quality seeds," says Mr Ndegwa who adds that their operation is not just about food and related plants.
On top of tissue culture bananas, mango, orange and avocado varieties, Aberdares also has several of medicinal plant varieties which are in high demand by pharmaceutical and pesticide companies globally.
Muringa Oliveira, a plant at the farm, has compounds that treat a variety of illnesses as is the neem tree whose effectiveness against a host of diseases is well documented.
But according to Mr Ndegwa, perhaps the most important medicinal plant in their possession is the prunus Africana. Already certified by Unesco as an endangered species, the plant has a powerful component used to treat cancer.
Also available for purchase at the Aberdares Technologies' farm are cover crops and tree seedlings as well as high yield fodder varieties for dairy farms.
Yields from the farm, he says, are high and the crop varieties take a short period of time to mature.
Most cash crop seedlings cost at between Sh50 and Sh100. These include the latest mango varieties of Ngowe, Tommy Atekins and Apple, which retail for up to Sh40 a piece at local supermarkets.
There are, too, grafted avocado varieties of Hass and Fuete. A fruit of the Hass tree fetches up to Sh10 with very high export demand.
With the growth of the fresh juice market in Kenya over the past few years has also seen a rise in demand for fruits.
Aberdare Technologies crops for that too with their banana, granadilla and sweet yellow grafted passion varieties. The sweet yellow passion fruit, in particular, has a stable demand with Kevian, manufacturers of the Afia fruit drink, East African Breweries and Coca Cola struggling to find enough suppliers for their growing fresh fruit drinks segments.
But what may be the ultimate highlight of the entire Aberdares Technologies project is the tissue culture banana variety.
It is what everybody in the neighbourhood and beyond talks about owing to the sheer size and fast maturity of the bananas.
Mr Ndegwa told the Business Daily, a bunch of bananas bunch grows up to one-and-a-half metres long and weighing about 75kg. With a kilo going for up to Sh20, that translates to Sh1,500 a bunch.
"If you have been wondering why so many people have returned to the farms, that is why," says Alfred Karega, a farmer in Kandara who has returned to his village after a "difficult spell in Thika" says: "Every week, I harvest up to 20 bunches, which earn me about Sh30,000.
I mostly supply supermarkets and the military." But according to Mr Karega, farming requires the same seriousness you would expect in a professional working environment. He says most farmers take the occupation casually and are unable to produce according to their farms' potential.
"Very many farmers fail because they do not approach the occupation with total focus and fore planning," says Mr Karega who adds that he found success in life when he returned to the farm motivated and with strategy. He obtained his seedlings from Aberdares Technologies and consulted their extension services for farm preparation and crop husbandry.
"That has worked for me and it would for anybody. With such high quality seeds and the knowledge to grow them, you can't go wrong."
The Aberdares Technologies farm demonstrates it is possible to make a fortune from the farm. Banana trees stretch all the way from the farm's entrance to as far as the eyes can see - a treasure that yield farmers better returns on their investment.
On another side of the farm are avocado, mango and pawpaw plants so healthy they look like they had just had a leaf manicure. "Plants are living organisms - the better you can nourish them, the healthier they will look and the more productive they will be," says Mr Ndegwa. "I don't know why we are a hungry nation with these technologies so readily available locally."
The case of Ms Syombua, only 100km away from Mr Ndegwa's farm lends credence to his concerns