A rich aroma engulf our nostrils us we step our feet in Lucky Farm. The sweet scent is emanating from various herbs that Maggie Muya is cultivating on her five acre farm at Kinanie; Machakos County, near Athi River. A Look at the farm are beautifully constructed greenhouses under basil cultivation and in the open fields are neat lush thriving mint, rosemary, thyme, majoran among others. It’s unbelievable to anyone visiting the area that in the middle of these semi-arid lands, there exist farming investments of this magnitude.
She drew her desire for farming from a friend; they had unutilized land thus she decided to venture into pig farming in 2010 before shifting to onion and tomato farming. The unpredictability of the market forced her to shift to herbs after incurring massive losses due to ‘flooding’ of the commodities in the market place.
“I could lose close to one and half tones of tomatoes; I thought of value addition but I felt burnt out; I needed to do something new, fresh, thus why i dived into herbs. I say dived in because I had no prior knowledge on herbs cultivation and the few farmers who were cultivating were not willing to share information. I learnt the hard way; making mistakes and learning from them. This was quite different compared to onions and tomatoes where information was all over; I could attend seminars organized by Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization (KARLO) to get information and also online,” Maggie alluded.
She contracted an agronomist who has been very instrumental in her success. She also teamed up to share information with 2 other herb farmers whom they have grown together in this noble venture.
Though herb cultivation is a lucrative venture, it is capital intensive and high risk field which has no shortcuts. One has to invest on greenhouse structures, a cold storage, enough clean water and a pack house. Herbs degenerate very quickly thus timelines have to be adhered to and should be transported with cold refrigerated trucks where a constant temperature of 4oC is maintained throughout the supply chain, until they are delivered to the client.
“To export, a farmer has to be GlobalGAP and KEPHIS certified which is costly and stringent. On top of the main certifications, there are other certifications such as BRC and Sedex; depending on the importing country and supermarkets requirements. Maintaining these high standards and rigorous audits such as in packaging, proper recording of spray program, scouting program, pest management is not easy,” she opined.
Records of the crop sprayed, the targeted disease or pest, which block, pre-harvest interval, the active ingredients and many others have to be maintained. Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate (KEPHIS) are very strict on pests, diseases and maximum residue levels (MRL). “If a consignment reaches the airport and pests are discovered it’s returned immediately; if this happen thrice you are stopped and they come to audit the farm. Worse is when it leaves the airport and it’s detected on arrival abroad; it attracts a penalty of 2.5 Euros per ton, you also pay for the freight charges and KEPHIS shuts down your ECS account hence you can’t export,”.
To curb pests and diseases, movements at Lucky farm greenhouses is restricted. Workers are restricted from accessing other greenhouses other than the one they are working in. This goes in hand to ensure if a greenhouse has been detected of pests, they are not carried to other greenhouses. The greenhouses are completely sealed and double doors constructed with side netting to prevent entry of pests. At the moment she avers that leaf miners and spider mites are the biggest threat to herb farming in the country.
“Before I began exporting I was selling my produce to local exporters. Acquiring skilled workers was a challenge. Most people in this locality were not competent to handle herbs, this forced me to source for workers from as far as Kitengela where they were working hence they could only work on their off days or late hours,” she said.
She intriguingly reveals that her first produce was 100 kilo but with lack of trained workers it took her 3 days to ensure the produce was well harvested and packed. Although she had the capacity to produce 800 kilograms of herbs, exporters could only take 100Kgs. Currently she is exporting 1.5 tones per week.
Basil being her major crop takes 3-4 weeks from planting to be ready for harvesting. When harvesting basil those of good quality are harvested and taken to the pack house weighed packed and taken to the cold room.
Herbs are mostly planted as seedlings which retail for Kenya Shillings 2.5 to 5 by propagators plus transportation cost.
Herbs being heavy feeders in nature require lots of water and a farmer need a good source of water to sustain them. Maggie has drilled a borehole. Continuous use of borehole water leads tohigh sodium levels in the soil. She treats the soils by adding humus and compost manure which she composts on her farm.
Maggie asserts that farming is a very fulfilling field and she is delighted to have created employment opportunities to the locals whom she has trained.