Tuesday, December 06, 2011

New farming technolgies putting money into onion farmers pockets

By Ochieng’ Ogodo
[NAIROBI] In his two-acre farm in West Kieni in Nyeri County, Central Kenya, Simon Nderitu stooped as he scrutinised his red bulb onions crop for the season.
“Before the project, I was farming because it was what everybody else did here to get food. But things have changed significantly for small-holder farmers who embraced a farming project led by Farm Concern International,” he said. 
Nderitu is among participants in an initial pilot project spearheaded by Farm Center International (FCI) started with 2,000 people in 2007 but has since been scaled up to include 10,000 farmers in Kieni site.
A combination of holistic extension and advisory approaches, it instills good agro-practices for higher quality production, treats agriculture as means to social integration, brings farmers and traders together in mutual business understanding, and ensures government agricultural officers deliver service at the point of need.
It fosters new technologies adoption and advises farmers on sound financial practices like savings. Ultimately, it aim at value addition from the farm to consumers.
Nderitu now knows how to prepare his land, secure affordable right seed varieties and plant based on seasonal projections and market demand. 
Yields trebled
The project has enabled him to more than treble his farm yields.  “Before 2008, I used to cultivate open pollinated varieties, which gave me on average 4,500 kilograms in a good season. But after adopting hybrid variety in 2008 and employing other good farming practices, the same piece of land yielded for me 7000 kg in my first harvest under the project,” said Nderitu.
An onion farm
Convinced by this huge gain, he dedicated two thirds of an acre to hybrid onion in 2009, and the yield shot up by 2000 kilograms. Today, the father of three is a proud owner of an eight-roomed decent timber house, dairy cattle and his children have been moved from public schools to a private academy for quality education.
Coming from a laid-back peasantry economy in a semi-arid area, he now knows how to space seeds when planting and what varieties will fetch good returns. “I have learnt how to identify the right fertilizer and the amount to apply, when to start weeding and how to cure the onions to prevent them from rotting after harvesting,” he added.
From the nursery to maturation, onions take on average 120 days and a kilo middles at KSh.30 to KSh.50 (US$ 0.318-0.531) compared to four years ago when same could fetch only KSh.5 (US$ 0.053) a kilo.
Nderitu, the chairman of Embaringo Commercial Village - a consortium of farmer groups within a given administrative village-said they have seen a revolution since 2008 with farmers moving from mainly subsistence production to commercial farming.
Socio-economic transformations
“Many children are now able to go to school, good houses are coming up and the young are turning to farming instead of migrating to urban centers for the ever elusive promise of employment,” he said.
The project directly links farmers to traders eliminating crafty middlemen that dominated sale and fleeced farmers. He said some middle men are resorting to onion farming after seeing the possibility of lucrative returns and others play the role of bulking during low production within the villages
Nderitu, the personification farming revolution in the project, said opportunities have been created. Shopping centers in the once poverty stricken sleepy village of Embaringo is a clear indication.
The Embaringo Commercial Village, he explained, coordinates production, sales, collective savings, looks into the welfare of farmers as well as negotiates for bulk farm inputs at a much lower cost compared to individual purchases.
Gerald Ngatia Watoro, Market and Trade Manager for Mount Kenya Region project that combines both Kieni West and East said the pilot has made a huge impact.
“The communities then had no organised mechanism in production and market development. We, therefore, decided to focus on hybrid red bulb onion having realised that it would not only lift many out of total penury but positively impact on development in this rural setting. On average production was low at, about 1500 kg per acre and the quality of the onions was poor,” he said.
FCI launched the project with the involvement of the Ministry of Agriculture Officials, the local Provincial Administration and the farmers. “We wanted an all-inclusive process built on a consensus rather than a top-down approach. We wanted the people to own the concept for it to work,” he said.
New technologies
A key component of the discussions was technologies that could be adapted. These included right seeds, proper agronomical practices and good post harvest technologies.
The project started with administrative villages made up of 150-200 households and created groups called commercial group, which formed an umbrella consortium called Commercial Villages
These are members who have agreed to work together to form an economic bloc with common leadership
Next were well-functioning community forums with various stakeholders including agro-input dealers, agricultural extension officers, onion seeds suppliers, traders and local administration. That has continued to date
Farmers were trained in the science of small-scale commercial farming like good land tilling methods, nursery management and transplanting, weeding, use of herbicide on proper spraying methods and programmes, especially more effective and less costly preventive spraying.
It also includes lessons on natural resource management and soil fertility: how to keep soils fertile through practices like crop rotation, water management through harvesting of path and roadside water run-offs into their gardens, digging of trenches to conserve water in farms and to check soil erosion.  They have been trained on record keeping, both at individual farm level and for the village groups.
Farmers have been taught how to build ventilated onion multi-storage facilities. Onions are placed on raised wire mesh inside the building and farmers are encouraged not to stack more than four bags on top of one another.
After that you create another floor of wire mesh above and repeat the same process creating up to four different compartments in one storage area. It must have wind side not left open to avoid rain water being carried into it when it is raining. Onions must be turned every two weeks whilst in storage.
Today, project participants realise on average 10,000 kilogram of onions per acre and this fetches up to US$ 3194. Farm inputs and overhead costs averages US$ US 532 leaving a farmer with a profit of US$ 2662 from an acre of hybrid onion.
 They plant seed verities like Red pinoy FI, Jamba FI, and Red star, marketed by different seed dealers.
Commercial Village concept
Even more interesting about the project is the Commercial Village concept. It is an association of groups within a village known as Commercial Producer groups with various sub-committees and functions as a business hub.
Each sub-committee votes its nominees to the executive levels of the umbrella organ, the commercial village. The overall body comprises the production and natural resource management; Finance, Micro-insurance and Investments, Marketing and Value addition, Village Social Capital and Youth integration committees within functional and strong governance structures.
According to Watoro, the FCI market development strategy directly links farmers to traders and thus eliminates middlemen influence in the value chain.
Before planting begins, the traders will have met with farmers and discussed future market projections.  This is done under the village business forums where farmers from across the villages visit the markets for direct interaction with traders and knowing first hand what the market needs.
Traders too visit villages and farmers now have a growing database of onion traders in Nairobi, Mombasa, Karatina and Kisumu accessed easily from cell phones.
Onion traders are also trained in cash flow management, business development plans, transportation, customer selection and formation of traders associations. “What we want is sustainability, which is only possible if all the components are working efficiently and making profits,” Watoro explained.
Kieni has largely been considered developmental backwater. But Watoro said banking institutions are moved in and marked increase in those holding accounts has been seen.
According Stanley Mwangi, FCI Strategy and Partnership Director, they have focused on giving farmers the right knowledge and changing the attitude of farmers to see farming as commercial venture. They seek to make farmers develop habits like making savings and linking them with research institutions. Their new frontier in extension services will be the ICT.
Extension services still a major challenge
Providing rural people with access to knowledge and information for increased productivity and sustainability to improve life quality and livelihoods is still a major challenge in Kenya
Farmers transplant onions in Kieni West-Nyeri
Those in less-favoured areas who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods have very poor access to agricultural services, including advice and training on new products and technologies due to poorly developed systems for access of local level service providers to new knowledge and products, the private sector’s inability to deliver services, poor resourced public extension services, weak infrastructure, and limited technical capacity among certain service providers like NGOs.
The Kieni project is an outpost of how efficient target oriented extension and advisory services on an area and groups can lead to tremendous rural development.

Ochieng' Ogodo is a Nairobi journalist whose works have been published in various parts of the world including Africa, the US and Europe. He is the English-speaking Africa and Middle East region winner for the 2008 Reuters-IUCN Media Awards for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. He is the chairman of Kenya Environment and Science Journalists Association (Kensja). He can be reached at ochiengogodo@yahoo.com or ogodo16@hotmail.com.


  1. New inventions in the farming with different farming equipments help a lot to the farmers to reduce their efficient.

    1. Anand, It absolutely makes tangible difference in ensuring that farmers adopt business mind in farming and this is making them food and nutrition secure. It also creates wealth and food security for the larger society.

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