For nearly four years, Sally Niaisiae, an elderly mother of six does not remember making a trip to the local market to buy vegetables as she did before. Instead, she is sought after by vegetable vendors seeking organically grown supplies to the fresh food market at Kiserian Town.
Until four years ago, Niaisiae was regular at the local market, buying vegetables and other fresh food. Living in peri-urban area, the land left after putting up her house could not produce enough food to feed the family, or so she thought. Then in 2008, non profit organisation, Kenya Institute of Organic Farming (KIOF) officials happened to visit Kiserian to sell organic farming concept to farmers there.
“What struck me about the whole idea of organic farming is that with my little farm space, I could grow enough food to feed my family and supply to the market. And that is without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are expensive these days,” she said.
“Only a few of us started the training because others wanted to see if it really works. Most of the people around here have small plots that produced just enough to feed the family and were therefore skeptical on how new farming methodology would enable them produce food enough to generate income. But with evidence of harvests, more farmers here got interested.”
“Today, we are about 100 organic farmers in a radius of about seven kilometers. We are able to supply the local food market with enough produce and sell to other markets unlike before when market vendors had to travel to the wholesale fresh food market in the city,” she said.
Niaisiae is a member of Ngong Organic Farmers Association, an umbrella community based organization (CBO) for small scale organic food farmers based at Kiserian, a sprawling peri-urban area about 30 km southwest of the capital Nairobi.
She is also the Chairperson of the Olonana Group, one of the six small welfare organic farming groups that combined to form the association. The impact of the 100 or so farmers in this area may not be felt until one visits the local market food market. At the Kiserian market, fresh food vendors interviewed spoke how popular organic grown vegetable, tubers and corn or organically raised chicken and rabbits.
Because of the fact that the organic farming does not follow rainfall cycles but rather farmers use simple irrigation methods, the farmers have been able to ensure a constant fresh food supply not only to the local market but also other markets like Karen Shopping Center where the farmers supply every Saturday throughout the year and the growing pool of large scale buyers especially those operating restaurants specializing in organic food in the capital Nairobi.
The case of Jennifer Kigunda, an organic farmer representing Puan Group is more illustrative of the transformation that organic farming has had. Her one acre land is divided into several portions, growing maize, various vegetables, and different potatoes varieties. Previously she would only grow maize and beans –the two most popular food crops with subsistence farmers in Kenya mainly grown using conventional farming methods.
“I would harvest on average six 90 kg bags of maize from the farm and on average three bags of beans,” she said. With her small family, she prefers to sell most of the harvest, fetching around 400 U.S. dollars per season, meaning she would make on average double that amount per year from the sale of surplus harvest.
But since the change to organic farming, Kigunda’s family income has increased tremendously as the sale of organic food from her farm brings in on averaged, 200 dollars per a three month season meaning that in a year, she now makes at least 3,600 dollars a year from her one acre farm, a 450 percent increase.
“We have a ready market for organic foods and we get a premium price for it at the market. What else would a farmer look for?” she asked.
Farmers divide their plots growing different crops allowing crop rotation and ensuring constant supply of fresh produce as they mature at different times. Kenya is among countries in the world where awareness on lifestyle diseases has increased tremendously in the last ten years partly because of improved diagnostics and availability of data indicating the number of deaths resulting from lifestyle diseases.
As one of the preventive measures, more Kenyans are choosing to eat healthy diet, preferring foods with less chemical and more natural, thus increasing the demand for organic foods. Among the key beneficiaries of this awareness is Jamlek Wagondu, also a member of the Ngong Organic Farmers Association. He is a specialty farmer in tomato. Two years ago, he decided to start exclusively growing organic tomatoes.
“First of all, I do not have to spend on the expensive pesticides which were contributing 70 percent of my costs. Then, these tomatoes have a ready market. Some of my customers even come to supervise if I follow organic model. I no longer have to sell to the main market in Nairobi through brokers and this means I fetch a much higher price, sometimes even three times the cost of comparable quantity of conventionally grown tomatoes,” said Wagondu.
“I have since concentrated on farming organic tomatoes because the earnings are enough to sustain my family including paying for the education of my four children,” he added.
Ngong Organic Farmers Association traces its roots to the year 2004 when the current chairman of the association Peter Melonye and friends decided to visit Nairobi International Trade Fair to learn some of the new farming technologies. The Kenya Institute of Organic Farming (KIOF) that pioneered expanded training and education in organic agriculture had an exhibition stand that Melonye and his friends got interested to visit.
Little did they know that they had just triggered an organic farming revolution that has now become one of the main economic activities for small scale farmers in Ngong. Melonye is perhaps the clearest manifestation of the strides small scale farmers with thirst for knowledge and the drive to put this knowledge to practice can achieve. His farm is a case study on integrated sustainable farming where every drop of livestock waste, felled branch and leaves, and other farm waste finds productive use. Although he has not achieved it yet, he is working towards ensuring his farm is fully organic; from the crops to the livestock.
Currently, he does half an acre of largely organic horticulture. All of his tens of chicken are also organic. He is working to ensure the cows and goats are organically certified. At his farm, he has overcome the challenge of water shortage with a system of harvesting rain water using the gutters that feed to his underground water reservoir that can provide water for his household use for one year.
He runs a drip irrigation system and when he uses the same water for the irrigation, it can take him four months, a big achievement considering the practice of rainwater harvesting is not very popular among Kenyan small scale farmers despite water shortages experienced in most parts of the country.
His home kitchen runs on biogas that is generated using livestock waste. He does not use firewood whatsoever. The grass that naturally grows in his farms, plus farm waste like maize stalks are pressed to make hay barns that can be stored for up to two years. In his granary, there are three metal silos that can hold 450 kg of maize each.
The maize can be stored there for two years without adding any chemicals. The silos use the vacuum concept to keep the maize dry. By this measure, Melonye has been able to cut his post harvest maize losses to zero. He sells the maize when the prices are high or just keeps it to feed the livestock.
At his backyard, he has started making briquettes; made from waster paper and charcoal dust mixture that is put water and then pressed into various shapes and then dried in the sun. Thereafter, the pieces are sold to the local community. The briquettes burn slowly but produced more heat that charcoal. The help households avoid use of charcoal and firewood. They are also more affordable.
Out of the 100 members of Ngong Organic Farmers Association, 70 are women. “The reason is that women are more interested in organic farming because its benefits are a sort of empowerment for us,” she said.
For instance, women are happy that with the fact that with just a small size of land, organic farming is able to generate attractive revenue. The size also means that women, who provide 80 percent of farm labor in Sub-Sahara Africa, and do not have to sweat a lot on tilling the land. The money generated is actually enough to employ a temporally farmhand, therefore creating another income opportunity.
“When a woman is engaged in organic farming, she is liberated from borrowing money from the spouse or relatives. The family is also well fed,” said Carol Njema, the representative of Acacia Group, also an affiliate of the Ngong Organic Farmers Association.
Ngong area where the farmers operate does not receive much rainfall and has been classified as a semi arid area. Climate change effects has further dropped the amount of rainfall the area receives, to below the annual average of 500 mm according to data from the Kenya Meteorological Department. Farmers said lack of adequate water is the main challenge to expanding the size of the farm they used in practicing organic farming.
“If farmers were closer to each other, we can do a communal borehole by contributing to the cost, but this is not the case. What we are not happy about is that the demand for organic food is so high, yet we are not able to meet it just because of water shortage. The money that we could have made from higher sales from more production is then lost,” said Njema.
Melonye sees a long term solution for the group is buying a communal farm and developing water access systems within that land. The groups also plan to adapt drip irrigation system that uses minimal water. Farmers said they also face a problem of accessing certified organic seeds that are only available through a few outlets. While farmers said they have been trained to develop homemade pesticides, it is not effective on some pests yet very few agro-dealers sell recommended pesticides and when available, they are highly expensive.
The pest problem is becoming bigger because of the movement of pests from conventional farmers to organic farmers. Because organic farming is not a yet mass practice in Ngong, most farmers are very likely to border conventional farms facilitating the transfer of pests and crop diseases.
The organic farmers are certified through a process known as Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS), based on East African Organic Products Standard requirement and the group internal procedures modeled as a peer review system.
International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) which is the only international umbrella organization for organic farming initiatives defines PGS as locally focused quality assurance systems that verify producers based on active participation of stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange.
Key customers of the organic produce are involved through inspection of the farming processes practiced by supplier farmers, said Jack Juma of the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN), one of the non-profit organizations that coordinates organic farming in Kenya. When a farmer has a particular market that specifically demand third party certification, they apply for certification from authorized certifying companies like Encert, Nesvax Control, Soil Association, and Ceres among others. - David Musyoka, Coast Week