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How French beans have revived our maize farms

By Jeckonia Otieno | Published Sat, May 20th 2017 at 00:02, Updated May 20th 2017 at 00:05 GMT +3
John Kirunja, an agronomist with VegPro in Trans Nzoia county.Photo: Jeckonia Otieno/Standard)

With the rainy season finally here, Phyllis Monyangi has started planting maize on her farm.

During the just-ended dry season, the farm would have been fallow, waiting for the next planting season, but she decided to make full use of it by planting French beans.

She had planted of French beans on 0.5 acres from which she reaped 3,250kg in two months.

This is the new strategy farmers are adopting to make use of their farms all year round to maximise from agriculture.

Trans Nzoia is traditionally Kenya’s leading breadbasket since it leads in the country’s maize production.

Nevertheless, after the harvest in October, the farms usually lie fallow waiting for the next planting season in April of the following year.

Fix nitrogen in the soil

However, this is changing as the county is also becoming a major producer of horticultural products through a project that aims to make use of land after the maize is harvested and farms are waiting for the next planting season.

“During the long rainy season we plant maize but in 2013 we also started planting French beans to augment what we were getting from maize and it has paid off,” says Monyangi.

Another farmer, Paul Ng’ang’a, from Kapsara in Cherangany also plants French beans, garden peas and snow peas.

Unlike Monyangi, Ng’ang’a started practising horticulture last year and now earns about Sh200,000 for every acre of French beans that he plants compared to Sh40,000 that he makes from maize.

“I have seen the difference between these crops and maize because I spend only Sh80,000 for each acre and get Sh200,000 in return,” says Ng’ang’a.

From each acre, he harvests about 400kg of French beans. Just like Monyangi, Ng’ang’a planted in August when the fields were empty as he awaited the long rains to plant maize.

A number of farmers in Trans Nzoia are now practising crop rotation after being trained by the Kenya Agricultural Value Chain Enterprises (KAVES), a USAid funded project that seeks to increase productivity among farmers in the area.

“KAVES taught us about the comparative earnings that come from different crops and we saw that we could earn more from different crops without having to stop growing one,” says Ng’ang’a.

He says among the lessons he learnt was that such rotation was important as the beans, being legumes, fix nitrogen before the maize is planted again.

With the prolonged drought, Ng’ang’a says he had to irrigate the field but all this was covered through the training that was offered by KAVES.

He says, “I would use a water pump and hosepipe to water the crops.”

However, even after irrigation, he has to deal with challenges that come with the dry season such as attacks by pests such as thrips and white flies.

The shift in agricultural practices is already paying off. Last year alone, according to John Kirunja, an agronomist with VegPro, 323 tonnes of French beans were produced by farmers.

Also exported were 54 tonnes of garden peas and 48 tonnes of snow peas from farmers between Mt Elgon and Cherangany.

Safe for export

VegPro works with farmers especially in ensuring the produce reaches the market. “We are in contact with 800 farmers out of which 221 are active and the fact that we pay weekly for their produce has encouraged them to think about horticulture as a viable means of income,” says Kirunja.

While the farmers submit their produce through groups, they are paid directly to their personal accounts.

“What we need from farmers is consistency in planting and we train them on efficient methods of irrigation to enrich their farms. We mainly target when the farms are idle after the maize season which also happens to be the dry season,” says Kirunja.

One advantage of the horticultural crops is the availability of market, mainly in the European Union as well as the United Arab Emirates. Kirunja says there are plans to start going to the United States once direct flights are introduced.

In 2016, Kenya earned Sh101.5 billion from horticultural products, with small holder farmers being greatest earners.

Foreign exchange earner

Benard Ogalla, an agriculture specialist with KAVES, says the introduction of high value products is meant to increase income for farmers to supplement that from maize.

The introduction of horticultural crops comes with standards to be met. Ogalla says in Trans Nzoia alone, 100 farmers have been taken through the Global Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) Standards training to ensure the produce is safe for export. “In Kenya, more than 200,000 farmers have benefited from horticulture and it is one of the top foreign exchange earners for Kenya,” says Ogalla.

Coupled with meeting the standards, a system that can track the produce back to an individual farmer has been put in place to ensure each farmer is accountable for their produce.

This shift is being encouraged by the Trans Nzoia County Government even as it considers factors that influence crop farming such as climate change and land fragmentation.

County acting Agriculture executive Mary Nzomo says other than French beans, the department is also focusing on tissue culture banana, grafted avocado and passion fruit farming.

“We are working with farmers to grow a variety of crops, especially after maize harvesting,” says Nzomo.

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