Kajiado, the raising unspoken food basket County in Kenya
Three trucks honked as they made their way into Wakulima market in Nairobi.
Two of the small trucks were loaded with tens of crates of tomatoes while the other red onions.
It was a big relief for the four young farmers who had ferried the produce from their farms in Loitokitok, Kajiado County.
Looking at the four that Saturday, their scruffy look perhaps displayed the hustle they had gone through to deliver the produce to the market, but they were all smiles.
Over an hour later, they started the journey back to Loitokitok, where they grow the crops in the open field.
The four are among tens of people who are flocking the semi-arid county to farm, thanks to the availability of huge arable land.
The county has not only attracted real estate developers in droves but also agriprenuers eager to make money from the soil.
From Kitengela to Ngong, Rongai, Namanga and Loitokitok, farming using new technology that include greenhouses and drip irrigation is the in-thing in Kajiado as the county becomes Nairobi’s new granary.
Onions, tomatoes, capsicum, traditional vegetables, French beans and fruits are some of the popular crops, with those opting for livestock keeping chicken, pigs and dairy cows and goats.
At Kimana in Loitokitok, huge tracts of land teem with tomatoes, onions, sukuma wiki (collard greens) and beans.
Most of the plots are owned by individual small-holder farmers who have leased the land while others have bought them.
From Sh5,000, one leases at least half-acre, enabling people to farm on huge pieces.
Titus Wamalwa, a manager at Maiyana Farm in Kimana, cites the area’s rich black cotton soil and affordable cost of hiring land as major reasons that make the county a farming destination.
Dragging a bag of onions onto a pick-up, Wamalwa’s face beams as he says:
“We might not be experiencing much rainfall but with technologies such as greenhouses and irrigation, one is good to go.”
READILY AVAILABLE FARM MANURE
And with residents being pastoralists keeping huge number of cows and goats, he notes that farm manure is readily accessible, cutting reliance on inorganic fertiliser.
Their five-acre farm is sub-divided into five portions to accommodate beans, onions and tomatoes at different growth stages, all grown under an open field irrigation.
They have sunk a borehole on the edge of the farm whose water is pumped into a 10,000-litre tank using two solar panels. Once in the tank, the water flows by gravity to the farm.
“Our planting is systematic such that we have tomatoes all-year-round,” says Wamalwa adding they irrigate the farm twice a week and rotate tomatoes with beans, which they harvest after three months.
They plant onions in furrows with a spacing of 1 by 1ft while the tomatoes in 30cm or 45cm spacing.
Finding market is not a problem for the farm as mama mbogas from as far as Nairobi, Ngong, Kitengela and Rongai, urban settlements with swelling population, visit to buy.
Farmers in the gated community grow tomatoes, capsicum and cucumber, which they mainly sell to supermarkets in Nairobi.
TECHNOLOGY AND PROFESSIONAL GUIDANCE
Margaret Kianduma, a nurse in Nairobi, is among farmers under the agribusiness project. Margaret says she bought into the concept because of the professional guidance she is getting.
“Myself I could not go to Kajiado to farm alone, but I liked the fact that someone else is doing it for me. So far I am happy with the project and being a farmer. My tomatoes are doing well and I’m hopeful I will get my first harvest in March.”
At Isinya, one finds Soil Ripe Ltd, which is pioneering the use plastic mulch technology to grow tomatoes and capsicum, each on an acre, for the local market, and bullet chillies for export.
The technology helps in mulching, weed control, preventing soil erosion, reducing evaporation and keeping diseases at bay, says Hilda Wangari, the owner of the firm.
They have been using the technology for the last two years, saving on costs associated with water use, which is a challenge in the dry county.
“Plastic mulch technology cuts water use by reducing evaporation, which means the crop gets 100 per cent of the water required. We have been using it for the last two years enabling us to grow crops without any challenge in the dry county,” says farm manager Moses Odhiambo.
Charles Wathobio, a farmer in Rongai, Kajiado North sub-county, keeps over 40 dairy goats on an eighth of an acre, which also hosts his homestead.
He says he chose to farm in the county because of its proximity to Nairobi, which offers ready market for his goat milk.
“There is also enough land where one can grow animal feeds and it is also easy to find and transport feeds due to well-developed transport system.”
COLD STORAGE FACILITIES
Besides small farmers, the county is also home to several flower farms, the Ostrich Farm, poultry company Kenchic and several agri-resource centres.
Haggai Oduori, an Assistant Research Fellow at the Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, Egerton University, says Kajiado County needs to conduct an analysis to find out crops that perform well in the region and market them to attract more investors.
Failure to do so, the policy expert cautions the county may soon be pushed out of food production market as other opportunities arise elsewhere.
He adds that the county should also focus on water issues because the area has saline water whose benefits could be short-lived.
“The county is dry, which makes irrigation handy, however, since many farmers use saline water to irrigate their farmers, the salinity will affect most farms and in the long run farm productivity will decline.”
He further recommends that the county should invest in cold storage facilities to support the horticultural farming sector thriving in the area.
“Kajiado has vast land and sits at a strategic place attracting many agri-prenuers in addition to its proximity to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, which is an added advantage to farmers eyeing the export market.”
Erick Ogumo, the chairman of Society of Crop Agribusiness Advisors of Kenya, says Kajiado has a great potential to be an agricultural county.
He, however, notes the county needs to develop agricultural hubs, with well-organised farming plots separate from residential areas to ensure sustainable production with minimal risk of conversion into real estate in the future.
Two factors could be attracting farmers to Kajiado, according to him.
WHAT ATTRACTS FARMERS TO KAJIADO?
First is the proximity to Nairobi, just like Kiambu, which initially was Nairobi’s food basket.
“There has been a lot of expansion out of Nairobi into the neighbouring counties, especially Kajiado. Kajiado provides an important food basket for the expanding city population,” he says.
Historically, Kiambu was the food basket of Nairobi, however, due to increasing cost of land and conversion of agricultural land into real estate, there is limited available land for agricultural purposes, pushing investors to Kajiado.
Governor David Nkedianye says the county is working on a plan to preserve and process food produce. According to him, a dryer will be built in Kajiado South to protect maize from aflatoxin attack as it awaits transport to Nairobi and other areas.
“The dryer will have a capacity to hold at least 40,000 90kg bags of maize a day,” says Dr Nkedianye.
He adds his government is working closely with the African Development Bank to put up a tomato processing plant. “So far, we have identified Namerok as the suitable area for the tomato project. Areas like Loitokitok and Kimana offer higher yields.”
He further says the county has built canals for irrigation in Kajiado South and Kajiado West.
“We are building them so that more farmers can take up irrigation farming. Rainfed water is very unreliable here,” he says, adding that other incentives include road expansion in agricultural areas to boost both farming and trade of produce.
Additional reporting by Billy Muiruri.
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Possible challenges when farming horticultural crops in greenhouses
- As many parts of Kenya, Kajiado is deficient of water sources that include rivers.
- Available water is saline, mostly from boreholes.
- Chances of contamination with diseases like bacterial wilt are higher.
- Loss of fertility is a common problem as most farmers plant one crop continuously without rotation.
- This can be overcome by rotating crops, for example growing onions or melons after tomatoes, pepper or eggplant and the use of both organic and inorganic fertilisers to replenish soil fertility.
- Greenhouse temperatures below 13 degrees Celsius and above 30 degrees Celsius in the case of dry air or higher than 30 to 35 degrees Celsius in cases of high air humidity affect growth and productivity of most crops.
- Management of insect pests and diseases is a challenge in greenhouse farming for most of the farmers.