Profit rich arrowroots edging out labour intensive rice farming

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Nicholas Muchera, a commercial arrow root farmer on his farm in Gichugu, Kirinyaga County. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

The year 2019 was Nicholas Mugo’s last of the 15 he had spent farming rice.

He made up his mind to try something else, but had to also fight the fear of the unknown. 

Mugo sold his 10 sheep, the only livestock he had, to get money for arrowroot shoots. Despite his family’s apprehension and the community’s discouragement, Mugo soldiered on.

Three years later, he proved them wrong. He became their mentor and now 10 farmers have ditched rice farming in Gichugu and are planting arrowroot tubers on about eight acres.

“After a successful venture, more farmers are now following suit. They visit to learn from me and I can confidently say that very soon there will be no traces of rice farms in this area, which was previously a predominantly a rice farming zone,” the farmer said.

Mugo, 45, who termed his 15 years of rice farming slavery, said since he embraced arrowroot farming, he has afforded a decent lifestyle for his family of three. He has since replaced the sheep he sold with a dairy cow and is in the process of building a decent house for the family and buying a family car.

He said unlike rice farming that requires a lot of water, is labour intensive and susceptible to pests and diseases, arrowroots, commonly referred to as nduma, are not that engaging and the profit is unimaginable.

“The rice plant has a wide array of enemies in the field, including rodents, insects, viruses and diseases, and this makes the pest management to be a costly affair, unlike the arrowroot tubers that only requires suckers and manure, and you are good to go,” the farmer said.

For labour, it takes only Mugo and his wife to prepare, plant and till the suckers, and an additional two people to harvest, unlike in rice farming where about 15 people will be required to do the work from planting to harvesting his small piece of land.

In one acre, Mugo harvests 200 bags of arrowroots, and each bag goes for between Sh2,500 and Sh2,700, which translates to a gross of Sh520,000 every season. The crop is ready for harvest eight to 10 months after planting.

From the same piece of land, the farmer used to harvest about 30 bags of rice and each sold at Sh2,000, translating to Sh64,000. A lot of this money paid for labour.

He said one cannot satisfy the market for the crop and that his produce is often booked even before harvest.

Not only does he make fortunes from the tubers, but also from the crop’s leaves, which have been found to be rich in energy, fibre, vitamins B6 and C, amino acids, minerals, iron, phosphorus, and other nutrients.

Arrowroot flour has a very high commercial value in the international market because it is used to make high-quality biscuits and cookies.

Farmers now flock Mugo’s farm in Njukiini village, Gichugu Ward, near Njoga river, where he imparts skills at a fee.

Lydia Wanja, who followed suit after witnessing Mugo’s lifestyle change, said other than making money from arrowroot farming, she had found time to increase her networks, as she now gets time to mingle.

“Before ditching rice farming, we could spend the whole day chasing away birds, especially after flowering. But with the new farming practice, we are only on the farm a few times and this means we can join social welfare groups since time is available,” said Ms Wanja.

“Even though rice takes four months to mature, which is half the time arrowroots require, one cannot compare the gains from the latter,” she says, adding: “This is our gold. We had not discovered it. More people have also ditched tomato farming for arrowroot, since it is more profitable and does not require intensive labour.”

But there is no engagement without a challenge. The farmers here say the biggest hurdle, which may discourage more farmers from engaging in arrowroot farming, is the cost of a root stock, which goes from Sh10 to Sh1,000, depending on where one gets it.

“It is expensive for the starters since for an acre one will require close to Sh200,000 for the whole exercise but after planting you get more suckers and even sell to other new farmers,” Wanja said.

Some of the reasons attributed to the increasing popularity and high demand for arrowroots is its health attributes. Many Kenyans are turning to healthy food due to the increased lifestyle diseases.

In August, the Ministry of Health released a report at the second National Food Fortification Summit, 2021 that showed that women in Kirinyaga led in obesity at 50 per cent, followed by those in Nyeri, Murang’a and Kiambu counties respectively.

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