As a young boy, Bernard Sila had a dream of becoming either a lawyer to fight for the rights of the less fortunate or a farmer to feed not only residents of dry areas of Ukambani, but also entire country and beyond.
At the time, Sila, now 23, was in Standard Five at Mwiki Primary School in Githurai, Nairobi. Every time he visited his rural home of Kisikioni in Tala, Machakos County, he would get stories of locals suffering and starving due to lack of enough food, largely caused by drought.
Yet in agriculture lessons, their teacher often said farming can be practised even in dry areas using irrigation.
“I kept wondering why locals in my area, which is synonymous with drought, were not farming, yet it was possible with irrigation. I resolved I would have to do it,” Sila says.
And today, he makes at least Sh40,000 a week from tomato farming and Sh50,000 from capsicum.
After failing to score the pass mark to study law in his 2013 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination, Sila says the only passion he had left was farming.
“After missing the chance to study law, I was not ready to miss on agriculture because those were the two choices in my life,” he tells Smart Harvest.
In 2014, Sila settled in the village to venture into farming. His immediate challenge was lack of practical skills in farming. To him, primary and high school agriculture lessons were just theory and could not help him. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any agricultural college or institute around to learn from.
Just then, his aunt ventured into capsicum farming. That was great news to Sila and he immediately moved in briefly with his aunt to learn some skills.
“I learned everything practically at my aunt’s place. She was knowledgeable about capsicum farming and her crops were doing well and highly productive, even though they were just 500 stems,” he says.
He says the greatest time came when his aunt told him to manage his farm. After four months of managing his aunt’s farm, he left to start his own, having been inspired to do capsicum. At this point, his second challenge was where to get money to buy seedlings.
Luckily, through a friend, Sila received free 300 tomato seedlings from Amiran Kenya Limited. He says the company was giving farmers free tomato seedlings to do planting trials in the area and he was one of the beneficiaries.
Initially, his mind was on capsicum, but after receiving tomato seedlings, Sila resolved to plant capsicum and tomatoes at the same time. His family assisted him with Sh10,000, which he used to buy 1,500 Goliath F1 seedlings of capsicum from a French agricultural company, Technisem.
With that, Sila embarked on his farming journey. He started during the rainy season, so he had no problem with water. But the challenge came when rain disappeared for almost a month and his young plants started withering.
Sila says he started drawing water from a dam over 3km away and ferried it to his farm using cattle. Watering half an acre of capsicum and half of tomatoes was hectic.
After irrigating his farm using buckets for sometime, he asked his uncle, also a farmer, for old pipes that were lying idle.
“My uncle gave me old pipes, which l used to transfer water from a makeshift tank on a raised hill to the entire farm,” he says.
The old pipes were, however, leaking and would waste a lot of water. But when he started harvesting, there was ready market and hundreds of residents bought capsicum and tomatoes from him.
After saving some money, Sila took loans from relatives amounting to Sh100,000 and invested in water. He bought new pipes and connected to a village borehole built in 2006 by then Water Minister Charity Ngilu. The borehole is 1km away from Sila’s farm.
He still uses the water to irrigation his tomato and capsicum farms. He laments that the water is very costly.
“They charge me Sh100 per unit and my farm uses a lot of water, especially during dry seasons,” he says.
He harvests twice a week and every time gets 500kg of capsicum, totalling to one tonne in a week. Sila says when it rains the production is higher, to about 1.3 tonnes per week and he has to harvest three times a week.
He says the area being dry, many people do not engage in farming and they flock to his farm to buy the produce. Sila makes huge sales in Tala, Kangundo and Ruiru towns.
On average, he sells 1kg of capsicum at Sh40. But at times prices go up to Sh50, or Sh60. Therefore, in a week one tonne fetches him up to Sh 40,000. For tomatoes, he makes at least Sh50,000 a week.