On December 18, 2003, Philister Achieng’ made a promise to her dying husband – that she will work hard on their farm and ensure their children are taken care of.
Her husband, Joseph Arodi, came home complaining of a stomach ache. His condition deteriorated so fast, and as they were looking for a vehicle to take Joseph to hospital, he succumbed.
His words however remained etched on Philister’s mind.
“He wanted me to work hard for his children, so I threw myself in the farm and started working,” she says.
That promise marked her entry into pepper farming.
Since her husband died, Philister has been a commercial pepper farmer. This has not only provided her with a means of income, but she regards it as a distraction that gave a cushion when shewas mourning her husband’s sudden death.
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“I owe it to him. Every time I see the crops germinate, I am reminded of that promise I made,” she says.
On a good harvest season, she sells a 50-kilogramme bag for Sh2,000. Her customer base is in Kisumu’s Kibuye and Jubilee markets. They buy from her to sell to hotels and local consumers.
She says she chose pepper farming, because it seems to flourish in Nyanza. She had previously tried maize, but the harvest was not promising so she abandoned it and directed her energy to pepper farming.
However, this year’s drought is threatening the promise she made. She says her plants have been shriveling with each passing day.
“I walk for almost three kilometres daily to get water, but they still dry up because it is too hot,” she says.
The promise she made her husband remains dear to her. She has now built a nursery in an attempt to grow pepper away from the sun. However, the relentless sun still sneaks into her seedlings and dries them up.
“I try my best, but it seems this season will ruin everything and leave us with nothing,” she says.
She adds that when the year started, she would receive calls from her customers asking if she would supply them with pepper. The calls started reducing, and now, none of them calls her.
“Maybe they found another supplier. I hope the rains will come and I will resume farming,” she says.
Though the farmer is experiencing some challenges like the drought, pepper farming has good prospects.
According to Grace Mureithi, an agronismist based in Nairobi, pepper farming is a lucrative business if a farmer gets it right. "There is no doubt pepper farming is a worthwhile business and a good investment, but before one gets into it, there are certain things, such as the market, they need to get right. Once you have a market, you are good to go,” she explains.
The beauty of pepper farming, she says, is that it is rarely attacked by pests and diseases. Also, it grows very fast and does not have a high failure rate because it is a dry land crop.
She explains that there are different varieties of pepper and most mature within three to four months. Though promising, there is a downside to pepper farming, she warns.
“Because there are a lot of companies that had offered good deals, so many farmers came on board and the market was flooded. There are so many demands the export firms make that many small holder farmers could not meet, so I know farmers in Nakuru who are stuck with their pepper because it has been rejected by exporters,” the expert cautions.
In the meantime, like other small scale farmers, Philister hopes that the rains will come soon.
“Everyday, when we see heavy clouds, we cross our fingers and pray that it will rain and we will resume farming,” she says.