Artichoke a pre-colonial vegetable that is putting money in farmers’ pockets

By Steven Mulanda
Artichoke is a crop that has become a sensation to farmers in Nyandarua County. It all began during the colonial times when white settlers who had invaded African soils were planting it for their own consumption and for business purposes in Europe. The story goes that during the struggle for independence in Kenya, a white settler who had planted them in plenty to a tune of 50 acres decided to uproot them and give some seedlings (suckers) to his loyal workers while destroying the rest before relocating back to his mother country.

Francis Mathathi’s father was one of the few lucky workers to be gifted with the suckers. While some of the beneficiaries he was working with never took the venture seriously, he saw the potential in the crop and began farming it to the dismay of many because it lacked local market as no one was consuming it in the region. After his demise, his son Francis Mathathi took over the cultivation of the crop and he can be credited for the revolutionisation of the crop in the region as it has seen farmers start embracing its cultivation.

Mathathi’s organic farm is situated in Big Nano village in Engineer Sub-county. “This village is called Big Nano because it’s the name that was used to refer to the white settler who was cultivating the crop. His big appearance and intimidating nature is the one that made local people to refer to him that way and hence adoption of the name for the A village,” Mathathi explained.

Artichoke also known by the names French artichoke and green artichoke in the United States is cultivated as a food crop. The edible portion of the plant consists of the flower bud before it become a bloom. The budding flower head is a cluster of many budding small flowers (inflorescences), together with many bracts, on an edible base. Once the buds bloom, the structure changes to a coarse form. The thick bracts and the receptacle of the immature flower head, known as the heart, are a culinary delicacy, whose flavor is delicate and nutlike. The smaller heads, or buds, are usually the most tender.

This amazing crop has several health benefits. They are packed with vitamins C and K and dietary fiber. It is a vegetable that is recommended as a top antioxidant foods known for its cancer fighting properties.

Of late there has been a lot of interest in artichoke and this has made Mathathi a darling in the media and farming circles. The excitement has crossed borders to the county of Meru where farmers in the region have joined the juggernaut. “Artichoke is a special delicacy for the Westerners and informed middle class in Kenya. They are ready for harvest when the edible flower buds are closed tightly and squeak slightly when squeezed. If you wait for them to open, they will be too tough to eat,” Mathathi said.

Artichoke plant can survive for more than 5 years once planted Mathathi farms it on a purely organic basis. He uses Aloe Vera and Mexican marigold to repel pests while he plants the crop using manure and top dress with the same. This has piqued the interest of organic food lovers in Karen and other leafy suburbs in Nairobi who purchases the crop on order. They are delivered there on a weekly basis and are depleted on arrival. The crop has a lot of foliage when pruned which are used as fodder for cattle. Each crop produces 100 buds and can be harvested over a period of 4 months, with each harvesting being done on a weekly basis. Some crops can produce throughout the year if properly fed. He sells the crop at Ksh. 20 per piece while its seedling (suckers) is sold for Kshs. 100.

Artichokes require loam, fast draining soil and cool temperatures to thrive, making Nyandarua to be ideal for its farming. They need regular water for an ample harvest and produce their first harvest after in 4 months after planting. “Once the harvesting is over, we cut the plants back to around 2 inches off the ground to let it sprout for a second harvest. Black moth is the biggest setback in cultivating artichokes at the early stages of growth because it plant shoots and making small holes in the foliage and flowers,” he said.
Going forward, due to the subdivisions that has occurred to his ancestral land between him and his siblings; he intends to increase his area of production by buying more land and not relying on leased pieces of lands.

As Mathathi and other small holder farmers in Nyandarua continue benefitting from this kind of vegetable, more people need to venture into farming of vegetables as a source of livelihood and a source of vitamins and minerals needed for good health. Diversifying into alternative vegetable farming ensures that farmers are able to tap into the wider market and not leading to glut of the same produce.

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