Kenyan smallholder farmers capture international markets with herbs farming

Kenyan smallholder farmers capture international markets with herbs farming

 By Bob Koigi

Over 1,500 smallholder farmers who traditionally produced cereals and pulses have found new lifeline in herbs farming, increased their household incomes while turning them into net exporters to meet the growing global demand for herbs and spices.

Premier Seed, a seeds and vegetable company that has been working with the farmers first piloted the project with 50 farmers in Nakuru area of Rift Valley in 2012 starting with basil and chives, two herbs that have a higher demand in the export market. The target was small scale farmers with small parcels of land and who grew traditional foods including maize, beans and potatoes.

“We decided to enter into herbs farming after identifying the huge demand in the export market and the local gap that hadn’t been fully exploited. While there were large scale exporters, there were no smallholder farmers in this trade despite demand from this segment from supermarkets and big hotels and we felt this was our entry point,” said Simon Andys the CEO and Founder of Premier Seed.

The idea was to move farmers from the traditional cultivation of cereals like maize and beans which continued to devastate them due to low yields, incessant pest and disease attacks and poor farm gate prices. “We knew the opportunity was there and the markets had expressed insatiable appetite for the produce. We only wanted to convince the farmers and transform their farming experiences,” said Eunice Wanjohi the lead agronomist at Premier Seed.

The project that works with smallholder farmers only to empower them change the kind of food they grow in order to increase household incomes and diversify crop portfolio has now reached farmers across key agricultural areas in Kenya and introduced a basket of herbs including oregano, thyme, rosemary and terragon to sate growing international demand.

To ensure optimum yields, Simon works with seed breeders from Netherlands who breed for him varieties that can easily adapt to the local climatic and soil conditions.

The seeds are distributed to farmers together with construction of greenhouses and training. “Seed is the foundation of every farming venture so we have to make sure we get it right from the start. We also encourage farmers to grow the produce in greenhouses because the export market is particularly sensitive about the growing conditions and prefer produce grown in a controlled area that is not susceptible to pests and diseases,” said Simon.

With majority of new farmers unable to afford greenhouse construction costs and seeds, Premier Seed has partnered with financial institutions like SMEP Microfinance Bank which extends credit facilities to the farmers. Farmers open accounts with the bank and once they start earning from the exports, the loan is deducted based on agreeable terms.

Premier Seed carries extensive training since farmers are delving into cultivation of new crops and in order to meet the stringent export requirements. They are trained on good agricultural practices like judicious use of chemicals and water, pest management and traceability of produce from farm to the export market. Once produce is harvested farmers also do the sorting, grading and packaging before cooler trucks pick the produce to the airport. “We have left them to manage the entire production and packaging process because we want them to own the process and because we see the level of commitment in what they do. They know what to pack for export in terms of quality and maturity. They have become so good at it that we have had no interceptions or any problems at the export destinations,” Eunice said.

More small scale farmers are now dumping growing cereals and pulses and embracing what they call a rewarding and less strenuous farming. Herbs like basil and chives are perennial, and mature after 45 days. Farmers harvest them after every ten days giving them guaranteed and frequent income compared to maize or beans that would take at minimum three months to mature.

A greenhouse the size of a basketball court yields on average 120 kilos of basil, chives or rosemary in a classic case of land optimization. A kilo earns the farmers on average Sh500 which as seen some farmers pocket up to Sh 100,000 each month.

James Kuria who has been farming maize, beans and peas for four decades is among the pioneer farmers of the project and now runs four greenhouses where he grows basil, dill and thyme and is now a model farmer attracting visitors across the country including students keen on seeing his farm’s transformation. “I used to earn on average Sh 10,000 per month before delving into herbs and I struggled with taking care of my family. Now my herbs farming alone from the three greenhouses earns me Sh 40,000 every month. My wife left his shop business to come assist me in the farm because the results are impressive. We have introduced more farmers to this venture,” he said.

With the demand for the herbs in the international market now on a meteoric rise, Premier Seed that initially concentrated on the European Union have found new frontiers in Middle East and America and are now recruiting more farmers to meet this burgeoning demand. It is already training 2500 more farmers and hopes to reach 7,000 more by 2020. “The ultimate goal is to get as many smallholder farmers as possible on board to take advantage of the huge opportunities in the export markets while moving them to new age farming,” Simon said.


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