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As fortunes of maize decline in Kenya due to Lethal Necrosis Disease (LND) and erratic weather, farmers are turning to early maturing crops like capsicum, French beans, watermelons and tomatoes.

The crops have become popular among farmers in the East African nation, with many in areas that were once dominated by maize and beans growing them.

Unlike maize which takes up to seven months to mature depending on the variety, capsicum, watermelons and French beans mature in about four months.

And the fact that there is ready market for produce from the crops, particularly in urban areas, has given farmers an impetus to grow them.

A good number of those who have taken to farming the early maturing crops are the youth, many who could not cultivate maize because of the long time it takes to mature.

Besides, maize requires huge tracts of land to grow, which young people do not have or cannot afford to lease.

“I grow capsicum and tomatoes on my about quarter an acre in Juja,” said Bernard Watitu on Monday. “They are good crops because they mature faster and one is guaranteed of the market.”

Watitu, 34, has been growing the crops for about a year and he notes that he is earning more money than what many maize farmers are getting. “Capsicum matures in about three months, which is half the period maize takes. This means that I will harvest several times as the maize farmer waits for his crops to mature.”

Again, the maize farmer may not get anything because of the LND that is ravaging the crop across Kenya for the third year in a row despite efforts to contain it.

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The Ministry of Agriculture has blamed the viral disease on use of recycled or farm-saved maize seeds and poor farming practices that include planting maize every season.

LND has affected maize in Rift Valley, Western, Central, Eastern and Nyanza, where thousands of farmers grow maize.

A bag of maize is currently going at an average of 34 dollars across Kenya. Most farmers are even selling their produce at lower prices due to oversupply.

This is after spending a lot of money in planting, fertiliser, weeding, harvesting and storing.

“I sell my capsicum at Kshs.10  each. Each plant produces about four capsicums per harvest, and I harvest twice a month from my 500 plants. I am making good money than a maize farmer,” said Watitu, who sells his produce from the boot of his car to traders and residents of Buru Buru, on the east of Nairobi.

The crop is resistant to pests, making Watitu use minimal pesticides hence save costs, unlike maize.

Watermelon is another plant offering good returns to farmers. The fruit has ready market in the capital Nairobi, where each melon is being sold in wholesale markets at an average of Kshs.35.

“Melons have high demand in urban areas. Kenyans have taken to eating the fruits giving farmers good business,” noted Joseph Musyoka, who grows them in Kitengela on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Bernard Maina, an agricultural extension officer based in western Kenya, noted that they are currently encouraging farmers to adopt the early maturing crops because of diseases and weather changes.

“These crops do not only offer farmers higher returns but they help break reliance on maize and the cycle of growing the crop. Some farmers in their 10 or 15 years of farming have never grown anything else besides maize.”

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Maina said they are teaching farmers to grow the early maturing crops in greenhouses, another method of farming new to Kenyan farmers. “With greenhouses, one of assured of quality harvest because he can control pests and use drip irrigation.”

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The crops have become popular among farmers in the East African nation, with many in areas that were once dominated...
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