Raphael Ngari first grew capsicum in a greenhouse in 2011 on a trial basis. The returns he says, were so impressive he was challenged to take a bigger risk with the exotic crop.
Ngari who has three greenhouses in his farm in Mukangu area of Embu North sub-county has since abandoned open-field farming and today is an expert not only in capsicum farming but also greenhouse construction.
After undertaking a course in Wildlife Management at the Kenya Wildlife Service training school, Ngari started off as an untrained Biology and Agriculture teacher in 2009 where he earned Sh6,000 a month, that could barely meet his needs.
The 37-year-old dabbed into farming as a side hustle and realised he made more from the soil than his formal job. He quit in 2011.
He embarked on serious outdoor farming of tomatoes and would make some profit though he encoutered numerous challenges especially pests and disease attacks.
When he visited a farm in Nairobi where greenhouse farming was being practised, Ngari was so impressed that he adopted it. Using some savings and donation from a friend, Ngari built a greenhouse and planted capsicum.
After three and half months he started harvesting the crop and realised 4,000kgs which he sold at Sh320,000.
As he was relishing from his fortune, Ngari coincidentally was selected for a programme by Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation that taught farmers on greenhouse farming. “I learned key aspects of greenhouse farming, especially seedbed preparation, greenhouse hygiene, plant nutrition, weeding, watering, pest diseases and control, support system and soil sampling. Others were harvesting, record keeping and nursery establishment,” he says.
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From his first sale of Sh320,000, Ngari bought building materials for his house and used some amount as capital for his next crop. Years later as a seasoned and successful capsicum farmer, Ngari has since built a large modern stone house, made several investments and lives comfortably from farming.
So what entails profitable capsicum farming?
Ngari says after constructing a greenhouse, the first step a farmer should take is test the soil to establish what it lacks so as to be informed on the right micronutrients to add.
He says one can liaise with Ministry of Agriculture officials or take soil samples to Karlo, adding that soil fertility results are out in a week while diseases results takes three weeks.
Ngari advises that if the soil is found to be infested with bacterial wilt, one should avoid planting capsicum or tomatoes as they will be affected and the harvest will be nil.
He urges a farmer to plant crops such as garlic, cucumber or spinach for about three years during which time the bacterial wilt will have died from lack of a host.
“Farmers whose crops fare badly in the greenhouse have ignored taking soil for testing or do not apply fertiliser or water in the right quantities,” he says.
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He advices farmers to buy original hybrid seeds even if they are expensive for best harvests. The hybrid seeds for an acre costs upwards of Sh10,000.
Ngari plants the seeds in a nursery in germination set trays where they germinate after 10 to 12 days.
While there he applies water and fertiliser until the third week when he does hardening to prepare the seedlings for planting in seedbeds when they are four weeks old.
Once in seedbeds where he spaces one plant 40 cm from another along the drip lines, he continues to apply the right fertilisers as per the soil testing report and sprays in intervals of 14 days and the crop matures in three and half months. Ngari says CAN fertiliser is applied three weeks after planting in the main seed beds to achieve strong stems, more flowering, big fruits and avoid blossom end rot.
“Very high or low temperatures can cause flower abortion (falling). Low temperature is countered by spraying fungicides while for high temperature you should open the vents. However flowers also fall as the plant tries to self-regulate the number of fruits that it can carry,” he says.
The crop can then be harvested for about eight months as it continues to grow.
Ngari says the common diseases affecting capsicum are blight and dumping off which is described as the most severe but controllable through spraying fungicides.
White flies and worms are destructive pests, they are manageable through use of pesticides. Currently, Ngari has two greenhouses under capsicum; he is harvesting from one already while the other one is at fruiting stage. His third greenhouse is under tomatoes.
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He has planted red and orange capsicum which he sells at between Sh80 and Sh200 per kilo depending on the market rates. He mainly targets Indians clients at City Park and City market who offer are ready market for the crop. He plants 864 plants in a greenhouse and each yields on average of 10kgs in its lifetime meaning he gets about 8,600kgs and makes at least Sh650,000 annually. With the greenhouse and water ready, the cost of production is low which Ngari sums up as Sh10,000 for seeds and Sh10,000 for chemicals and fertilisers. He hires casual workers on need basis. According to Elias Kivuti who practised outdoor capsicum farming in Karurumo in Embu County, the cost of production per acre is about Sh120,000 while one can make between sales of between Sh300,000 to Sh500,000.
He says the crop takes about two months in a nursery and four months after planting in the farm to mature. Kalro Embu station director Dr Patrick Gicheru urges farmers to embrace soil testing so that they can be advised on missing nutrients and ways to replenish them. Ngari has another revenue stream from building greenhouses for other farmers.
In constructing his first greenhouse, Ngari sought the services of an agronomist from where he learned the ropes on the art and science of the venture.
“Trees were readily available from the farm so I just bought polythene sheeting, pipes, a tank and nails. The greenhouse builder I engaged was impressed with how I quickly learned the art and he encouraged me to consider pursuing it,” he says.
The training at Karlo sharpened his skills further and when he secured his first client from Gatundu, he gave his best.
“The client linked me up with another farmer in Isiolo and I did a spectacular job. From the earnings, I built two more greenhouses in my farm,” he says.
Ngari uses locally available tree poles, timber, nails and ultra-violet treated polythene to make greenhouses at half the price of factory designed ones.
To date, he has built over 50 greenhouses in Kenya.
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He also teaches the client on greenhouse management and agronomy.
He charges Sh150,000 to build a greenhouse measuring 8X30m which can fit 1,000 tomato stems at a spacing of 1X11/2ft and has a lifespan of five years.
With dimensions of 8X15m he charges Sh90,000 and delivers in four days. The cost is inclusive of construction materials, drip-kit irrigation, tank and soil preparation that incorporates treatment (solarisation) to kill pests and bacteria in the field.
He ensures he wraps the posts holding the greenhouses at the bottom to keep ants from eating from them. “We use cylindrical poles for roofing that are not easily breakable unlike timber. We also tighten the polythene paper firmly so that it can withstand strong winds,” he explains.
For hot areas, the green house height is higher and ventilation larger while the reverse is true in colder areas to help maintain optimum greenhouse temperature. The UV treated polythene allows only the rays of light beneficial to plant chlorophyll to seep through but has to be replaced every five years when its filtration ability will have declined.
Ngari reveals he is making good money from his three greenhouses and plans to increase them to 10.