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It’s a green revolution in the ‘White Highlands’

By | November 30th 2009 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

By Kiundu Waweru

The man in a dirty brown polo shirt and matching pants grins from ear to ear, exposing missing teeth in his lower and upper jaws.

A woman carrying a child thrusts a hand inside her blouse and retrieves notes tucked there and hands them to the man.

Still grinning, the heavyset man stretches from his seat to select tomatoes from one of the many crates stacked about, then gently places them in the woman’s crate.

A shrill phone ring interrupts the man, who speaks rapidly into the mouthpiece, confirming that he will be able to deliver six crates of tomatoes.

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Githinji Mwathi has a reason to smile. As a pioneer greenhouse farmer at Rironi in Limuru, he is reaping the fruits of his labour, while relishing the rapid change that the farming has introduced to the region.

Mr Githinji Mwathi (left), a horticultural farmer in Limuru, with one of his customers Ms Rose Wanjiku.

The Limuru skyline has been transformed, with green plastic housing becoming part of the environment. The green houses, similar to those used in flower farming in Naivasha and elsewhere, have found their way to Ndeiya, near Limuru, an area synonymous with prolonged dry spells and aridity.

Rage and craze

Farmers have turned the dry lands to productive use, commercially growing tomatoes, green pepper, cucumber and French beans all the year round in the heat-controlled greenhouses.

"I have been a farmer all my life," Mwathi explains. "Having grown tomatoes in the open field, I can say greenhouses are better."

In 2007, Mwathi was looking to rear dairy cattle commercially, and a friend of his, who worked with Horticultural Crops Development Authority (HCDA) told him about greenhouses.

"I went to HCDA and was shown sales records of people who had tried. On seeing the rewards, I was motivated and took up training with them."

Soon afterwards, Mwathi built his first greenhouse. The crop bore him profits and he soon built another green house. The following year, he proudly says, he was able to take his daughter to a private university from the proceeds of his farming.

In Rironi area, The Standard met two men who had abandoned matatu business to try a hand in horticultural farming that’s now all the rage and craze.

"I felt that as a tout, I was not making any progress. Going around the country, I had seen the greenhouses and I got interested," says Joseph Karanja. "I started going to farming seminars, got trained by a man in Ndeiya who was successful and soon, I hustled and built myself a greenhouse, planted green pepper and three months later, I was harvesting."

But it was not easy starting off, Karanja says. Putting up the structure is expensive, and many opt for second hand materials for the polythene paper and the anti-insect net.

Biggest challenge

Mwathi’s greenhouse measuring ten by 30 metres cost Sh100,000 to put up. For seedlings, they say they would buy from farms in Naivasha but Mwathi says they were being taken advantage of. He now has his own nursery, which he says cost him much less to maintain.

The greenhouse functions quite simply: Drip irrigation is employed to maximise on water usage, with each plant receiving direct water on the roots. The plastic sheeting maintains the humid and moist environment needed in the greenhouse.

However, water remains the biggest challenge for the farmers. Going inside Fredrick’s Gichuhi sprawling greenhouse, where he grows the green pepper and tomatoes, we are confronted with withering leaves. "This is because I did not have water for several days. But the plants will hopefully get back to life soon."

Another challenge is that the plants are being infested by pests like the white fly and leaf miner which forces them to use pesticides and insecticides.

Proper use of sheets that repel insects would have prevented them from attacking plants.

Gichuhi further laments: "Many people, on learning about the profits being amassed, are rushing to put up own structures. They do not first get educated, they come, pick our brains and rush to build own greenhouses which terribly fail."

Mwathi and others have formed the Limuru Greenhouse Farmers’ Association, where they meet regularly and invite companies dealing in horticulture to advice them. "As long as there is market, we are good," Gichuhi says. He sells his produce to an Asian in Nairobi.

Mwathi says farmers from Kirinyaga and Mwea "have flooded the market with their produce and we have been forced to cater for the local market. However, theirs are grown on open fields and are seasonal; for us, we are on all year round."

green house tomatoes Horticultural Crops Development Authority farming
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