Want stress-free farming? The secret is right here

Prof John Wesonga of JKUAT in one of the greenhouses at the university. He grows strawberries in the greenhouses. [David Gichuru, Standard]

Sometime in 2015, when all talk in farming corridors was the magic of greenhouses, Alexander Simiyu jumped onto the idea and invested in one of his own.

Just like many other farmers then, Mr Simiyu had heard of ‘magic houses’ where crops would grow unattended.

Armed with Sh300, 000 savings, Mr Simiyu immersed himself into the venture and started off with two greenhouses where he planted tomatoes on his farm in Bungoma.

Mr Simiyu says he expected nothing short of Sh260, 000 profit from both greenhouses.

After completing soil tests and fixing what needed to be fixed, he started counting days to his big reap as tomatoes take 60 to 90 days to mature. Unfortunately his dreams were shattered as his greenhouses were blown away by wind.

“I watched as my dream crumbled in front of me. I helplessly watched the young plants give in to harsh weather and I had nothing much to do,” Simiyu narrates.

Ranging from overwhelming heat in the controlled growth space, invasion of pests as well as intense climatic conditions, farmers revealed their worst experiences with greenhouses.

The farmers’ experiences, according to Prof Urbanus Mutwiwa, an Associate Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), are the reasons why many farmers abandon greenhouse farming as soon as they begin.

“In fact, as I drove to work in the morning, I saw a huge greenhouse in Syokimau that has obviously not been used for a long time. It is abandoned despite the huge investment the owner obviously put into it,” says Prof Mutwiwa.       

Against this backdrop, a team of researchers at JKUAT are working on low cost as well as low input greenhouse technologies fashioned in line with local farming needs.

“Farmers continue to buy greenhouses at high prices without prior information on their own farming needs. A farmer in Kitui where it is hot is not supposed to buy the same greenhouse as the one in Limuru. The crops need different heating conditions,” says Prof Mutwiwa.

The researchers are adopting greenhouse technologies from more developed countries and customising them to the farming requirements of Kenyan farmers.  

 Japanese technology

Sticking above tens of greenhouses at the research institution is a huge metallic and enmeshed greenhouse that Prof Mutwiwa explains was imported from Japan to be reworked and adopted for local use.

The greenhouse stands about 5 metres above the ground and is more than twice the height of all other greenhouses available at the institution.

“This is a strong greenhouse. It can easily support a sizeable aircraft when it lands on top of it,” Prof Mutwiwa says as he leads us inside the greenhouse.

In the growth space that measures about 30 by 15 metres, Prof John Wesonga, an Associate Professor in the department of Horticulture is tending to red, succulent strawberries that hang loose from potted cocopeat placed on stands.

“Farming should not be torturous. At this height, there is no need to bend. Anyone would be happy to work in this position,” says Prof Wesonga.

There are strewn-in sticky traps too. Blue ones attract thrips while yellow ones have pheromone, a lure that attracts male white flies.

Female ones age away in what the professors describe as the natural way to control pests.

At one corner of the greenhouse, there is a beehive from which bees fly to aid in pollination of the plants.

“There are enough bees to provide sufficient pollination. If pollination isn’t done well, the strawberry fruits will be smaller than the way they are now. They will also be misshapen and not appealing at all to buyers,” says Prof Wesonga.

There are also data loggers to record temperature and humidity inside the growth space. Prof Mutwiwa explains that for good yields, temperature should be kept between 30-35 degrees celcius. Humidity should also be kept at optimum to keep fungal infections at bay.

The structure, which costs over Sh1 million, is however out of reach for many Kenyan small scale farmers. The researchers are however working on something more affordable to farmers.

“This greenhouse is built with expensive metal to withstand earthquakes. In Kenya, we are blessed because we don’t experience severe earthquakes and we therefore don’t require such heavy metal just for a greenhouse,” he says.

Controlled lighting

According to the researchers, one of the major issues they are also tackling is cost as greenhouse farming can sometimes come with heavy spending.

“Our technologies use special nets and controlled light quality to ward of pests and to totally avoid use of chemicals in spraying,” says Prof Mutwiwa.

First, the 50 micron net used on the sides on the greenhouse at JKUAT makes it nearly impossible for pests to enter the structure.

Additionally, the UV blocking cover on top of the greenhouse is used to optically keep pests at bay.

Straight greenhouses

Greenhouses available on the market are the typical zipped farmers’ kit which are curved on both ends.

These, according to Prof Mutwiwa offer negative returns on the investment put in acquiring the greenhouse.

“A greenhouse is very expensive and it hurts if you can’t use all the space inside. But with a curving structure, there is a lot of space on the sides that can’t support growth of the plants,” says the lead researcher.

He says that suitable height for growth in a greenhouse is at least 3 metres high but where it curves, there is too much heating that burns up the plant.