As the adage goes knowledge is power and its better when put in play to actualise a dream that one has always yearned for. This phrase is well illustrated by three learned and likeminded buddies Dr. Peter Njau, Dr. Peterson Njiru and Eng. Elias Karumi who Hortfresh Journal visited their farm in Marula Estate, Naivasha.
They have combined their vast knowledge, skills and wherewithal to put up an expansive agricultural farming realm; West Rift Feeds and Foods Ltd that is specializing in growing French beans and other array of fresh produce for export market.
French beans are a large proportion of the company’s contract farming portfolio in line with the demand from major markets of; United Kingdom, Europe as well as the Middle East. The trio also grow tender stem broccoli, cabbages, potatoes and onions. Their journey to horticultural farming is a fascinating story of three friends exploring Naivasha region in pursuit of establishing an animal feeds project but discovered people in Naivasha were majoring in horticulture. The farms were also well managed with several crops growing which was a sight to behold. They fell in love with Marula because of the climatical conditions, big chunks of land for plowing and enough water for irrigation. Upon inquiring, they were offered land lease at affordable rates
Moreover, availability of cheap labour, nearness to the market and also access to the Nairobi –Nakuru highway was an icing on the cake. “We ventured into central pivot irrigation farming as per the land lease agreement and signed a contract with a company called Meru Greens to grow for them French beans which we did. We were in the contract for one and half years and then moved to our current contract with East Africa Growers (EAG). We started by planting one hectare per week and now we are planting 3 hectares per week; and every time you visit us you will find 12 hectares under harvesting. Our target is to yield 10 tonnes of French beans per hectare per day,” Dr Njau who holds PhD in applied plant breeding and bio-technology, says.
According to him, central pivot irrigation is advantageous when cultivating in big acreages as a farmer is able to irrigate more, apply mechanisation and it’s also cheap compared to drip irrigation which is time consuming and labour intensive while laying the drips.
Initially, they were farming wheat and barley in Mau- Narok, but the business became unfeasible due to the unpredictability of the market and other factors beyond their control.
“West Rift Feeds and Foods Ltd currently operate two leased farms. The first farm, named Pivot 1, is estimated to be 170 acres in size. “We have been successfully planting and harvesting produce on this farm since the start of our operations in 2016. The second farm, named Pivot 7, is estimated to be 250 acres in size. We expanded our operations into this second farm in late 2019. The farm’s first harvest was in November 2019,” Dr Njau elaborated.
French beans are one of the major export crops from Kenya that is propelling the country to the pinnacle of greatness. It is a fascinating venture especially when on a contract basis. Most companies involved are committed in picking up the produce in good time and paying the farmers as well. Unfortunately, the consumption of French beans in Kenya is still low.
Currently, the farm grows 3 varieties of French beans; Goal, Enclave and Escape. They are introducing Tiezo which thrives well in warm seasons. To grow a new variety, their client has a big role in choosing it as they have to test the market first. “There are specifications which determine the variety to grow, for example; the diameter of the pods and the length of the pods. This is required because of the clients taste and preference. Some prefer those harvested straight from the farm or canned beans which are fine, super fine and extra fine. These are requirements you are given before signing a contract,’’ he opines.
The production of good quality French beans fit for export market is dependent on various factors including high adherence to International Food.
Safety Standards (IFSS). Responding to the question on how they manage to comply with these stringent Food Safety Standards, “We really follow the procedures and the good agricultural practices. We have the Kenyan Gap and Global Gap and there are a lot of audits that are usually done and we fit into all these.
Secondly, we employ very able young people who have experience and we also train them ourselves. We majorly employ young people because we can train them and shape them, to how we want our tasks performed and also so that they can reason like us. We avoid employing people who have been in the game for some time and are resistant to change. West Rift Feeds and Foods, needs people who comply with what has been stipulated. They also undergo a lot of trainings on chemical applications and the rate that are supposed to be applied; and we follow it very keenly,” Dr Njau explained. They have two graduates who are in charge of the spraying program and Dr Njau always meets them and discuss before changing the spray program. The company has employed over 400 people who ensure the daily operations are done satisfactorily and thus they are able to draw a livelihood from the farm.
Timely Information flow in French beans farming is vital, like for today, I am already projecting for tomorrow and if the company doesn’t manage the stipulated harvest, I have to write an email to the contactor so as not to inconvenience them. Nowadays, they usually book space in the planes in advance for the produce that is to be shipped. If we don’t communicate in time, we will be inconveniencing them. When the weather is good and we have an over production we communicate to them in advance so that we don’t suffer while when the production reduces we inform them in advance for them to outsource from other farmers,” he said.
The challenges they have encountered in farming French beans is heavy rainfall and hailstorms that has continued to pound Naivasha for a long period of time in the last two years. When there is too much rainfall they can lose 10 tonnes of production per acre and it takes quite some time to recover. “Our main aim was to master the art of production and we have lived to that. Our target in the coming years will be to start exporting. We also wish to venture into value addition,” Dr Njau concluded.
By Steven Mulanda