Sylvia Kuria, growing Organic Foods as food safety awareness increases

BY STEVEN MULANDA

Picture this; you are at your farm doing your daily farming chores, then a friend who works with the French Embassy pays you a visit. He is impressed with what you are doing and years down the memory lane, you are invited as a guest speaker to give a keynote speech on agricultural entrepreneurship during French President Emmanuel Macron visit to Kenya in 2019. The function dubbed ‘Choose Africa” was and still is French Government initiative of accelerating the growth of Micro, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurship in Africa.

This is the scintillating story of Sylvia Kuria an organic farmer who started off farming on a half an acre in Ndeiya, Kiambu County back then and has steadily expanded the farm to 5 acres in the vicinity and to another 10 acres in Mai Mahiu. She has christened the farm as Slyvia’s Basket, where she grows an array of horticultural crops; such as tomatoes, onions and capsicums as well as sorghum and millet. She does not grow the crops using conventional methods that involve use of fertilizer and pesticides, but she grows using agro-ecological methods that include organic farming. Her interest to organic farming dates back to 2009 when she had young children and wanted them to consume safe food. She didn’t trust the foods found in markets basically because different people use different concoctions of chemicals and pesticides, making it difficult to trace which is the safe food. “I just asked myself since I have a small piece of land why don’t I just grow my own food and see how it was going to work. With time, it became more than enough and I started a home delivery business where I was just putting together produce from my piece of land and delivering them to my friends in Nairobi. I got a lot of good feedback and I started a grocery shop in 2019 where I sell a variety of vegetables and fruits all grown organically,” she explained.

How safe is the food we consume?

With increase in lifestyle diseases, most people are concerned on what types of food to eat, thanks to the media and internet where many exposés and reports highlights to the masses, where the food is grown and how its grown. People have also embraced nutronists advises on food consumption. For instance, locally, tomatoes were touted not to be good for human consumption because of the many pesticides used when farming. A research published a few months ago in the US states that a carrot grown conventionally, doesn’t have enough nutrients as compared to the one grown organically. One has to eat 15 carrots grown conventionally compared to a person eating 1 grown organically to be able to match the level of nutrients.

“In the last ten years since I engaged myself with growing vegetables I have learned a lot, including many facts about bad impacts of chemicals and pesticides on our soil and our food. This has strongly convinced me of the benefits of organic agriculture and it has made me believe that this is the best and only way to nourish our families. It is not easy to work as an organic farmer, but I was lucky to get some help from the Kenyan Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) at the beginning. Also I’ve had the opportunity to give some interviews to spread the word about organic agriculture and healthy diets,” she said

Organic farming

The payoffs of organic farming start and ends with the soil composition where Kuria narrates she had to continually build her farming land for a period of 5 consecutive years to achieve the desired results. First, she builds the soil by doing a lot of composting and adding a lot of compost to the soil after every planting season, top dressing with compost and doing lots of mulching because when you cover the soil with mulch it helps in ensuring that all the micro-organism in the soil are preserved; once they are exposed to the open they are easily scorched by the sun. Besides mulching and composting she does green manuring and cover cropping. She works to ensure all the land is covered and it’s not bare, normally by planting legumes and putting them back into the soil as green manure.

Organic farming is an agricultural system that uses ecologically based pest controls and biological fertilizers derived largely from animal and plant wastes and nitrogen-fixing cover crops. Modern organic farming was developed as a response to the environmental harm caused by the use of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers in conventional agriculture, and it has numerous ecological benefits.Compared with conventional agriculture, organic farming uses fewer pesticides, reduces soil erosion, decreases nitrate leaching into groundwater and surface water, and recycles animal wastes back into the farm.

According to Silvia, while interacting with farmers, most of them agrees that their yields have drastically reduced over the years.This is what has led to this. “We have spoilt our soils;this is what happens when we use a lot of synthetic inputs;itcompromises quality of the soil by actually creating a hard pan. You find when it rains, instead of water percolating into the soil, it runs over causing a lot of soil erosion but when we do organic farming and lots of composting, we loosen up the soil particles, the soil becomes very rich and clear hence when it rains water actually sips through. Secondly, synthetic inputs bind up the nutrients in the soil hindering the uptake of the nutrients by the plant thus why you see farmers frequently adding the fertilizer because they want the crop to grow,” she explains.Besides farming, Kuria does trainings to farmers. NGO’s usually rope her in their training programs to train farmers by paying her instead of the farmers paying her directly.

One of the biggest challenges she encountered at the beginning was marketing, she could produce quite a large proportion of produce only to sell to the middle men who would buy at a lower price but she has managed to overcome this by setting up her own grocery. ‘’The problem with the Kenyan market, it is not organized and the government has not been able to put proper market structures for farmers to sell their produce. This has created a gapwhichis filled by middlemen and they are the one who decide how much they are going to buy and also the quantities to buy. For example,a farmercould have a produce but is not able to access big restaurants in Nairobi because they are wholly controlled by middlemen,” she painfully narrated.

Her parting shot is: “Good healthy food and the health of people, the two are strongly connected. Organic agriculture has proven to be the best and most sustainable way for this. The more farmers embrace organic agriculture;notspraying pesticides but healing the soil, the more, good food will be available. Parents must start to feed their children healthy. If we avoid highly processed and refined foods, we can improve our diets and re-balance our bodies. From healthy soils we cannot only get better veggies but also healthy soils rich of humus and more resistant to drought; contributing to reducing carbonthus reducing climate change. It means thatmore organic agriculture around the world is a huge benefit to mankind and our planet. My advice is: start small and local, convince your neighbors;small clusters of 200 to 300 organic kitchen gardens in the countryside could change so much. In Kenya we have started shifting, there is quite a good organic movement but more education and training is necessary to attract many farmers to the organic movement. There is a lot of potential, the farmers are open, I am deeply convinced organic can help to change the world into a better place,” she averred.

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