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I left a Sh500,000 salary for farming

By Mona Ombogo | January 15th 2020
Ken and Kate deliver fresh produce from farms to households. [Courtesy]

“In that last rainy season, we lost 1,512 tomato crops, but ironically, this is when I discovered the advantage of planting a variety of produce. While the tomatoes suffered, the lettuce and coriander flourished,” says Kinyua Gachecheh, founder of the brand, Farmer Ken, a business that delivers grocery baskets directly from farm to door.

Kinyua, 43, started out as a “telephone farmer”, but quit his job in 2018, giving up a 13-year career to jump full-time into farming on a three-acre family land in Naro Moru.

He speaks with Hustle about his daring idea, to plant specific crops in small quantities for specific retail customers.

You walked away from a salary of just over Sh500,000 to focus on the Farmer Ken brand, why?

My parents planted produce as a surplus source of income. I was always excited to visit the farm. When I was old enough to try out farming on my own, I did. It was a trial and error process; you hear garlic is doing well, so you plant garlic. Then someone else tells you to try ginger because it is in demand, and you try ginger. But this was not a consistent way to make a profit.

In 2005, I started working at a production company in Industrial area. This company sat on one acre and was turning over hundreds of millions every year.

I thought to myself, our farm sits on three acres, why can’t we do the same thing?

But it took you another 13 years to focus exclusively on farming...

Yes, many of us have this notion that farming is something you do when you have failed at all else or when you need extra shillings. We use the phrase “going back to farming” a lot. I think it comes from our parents, who worked hard to move from the countryside to the cities. They educated us to give us options, so when we “return to the farm” it is something that is difficult for them or society at large to comprehend.

The compromise we make is telephone farming, but it is virtually impossible to make a consistent high profit through long distance farming.

Why is that?

I took this course at Strathmore Business School and Latia Resource Centre in Isinya, and they had done a study on satellite farming. One of the things they said was, it is intrinsically designed to fail. They asked, if you run a daily business, what are the chances it will succeed if you show up once every month, don’t keep any records, don’t plan and hire relatives to run the place? The answer was obvious.

Farming should not be any different. So, I applied what I learned.

What changes did you make?

I stopped planting whatever was trending and picked four crops to focus on; garlic, onions, tomatoes and ginger. I invested approximately Sh300,000 on each crop.

We lost all the ginger despite getting experts from Uganda to show us how to plant and care for them. The tomatoes did alright, but we discovered it was a highly sensitive and demanding plant.

The garlic and onions did exceptionally well, bringing a profit of about 25 per cent, for each crop, with a planting cycle of three to four months. Essentially, we harvested at least three times a year.

How did you move from that to what you do now, delivering baskets to homes directly?

At the time, I met my partner Kate. She is a chef. When we started dating, I asked her if she would consider getting her produce directly from the farm. She said it would be any chef’s dream.

I started comparing prices of produce sold to customers versus how much we sold ours to brokers. Let’s take onions for example; a broker would buy a kilo for Sh35-Sh40, while a single onion would be sold for Sh20 at a market in Rongai.

That’s quite a big difference!

Exactly. A kilo holds about seven big onions, which would bring the price of a kilo to Sh140, market rates. In a bad harvest we would get about four tonnes of onions. If we sold to the broker, we would make Sh160,000. If we sold directly to the consumer, we would get Sh560,000.

The next question became, how do we get to the customer or as close to the consumer as possible? That is how the Farmer Ken brand was born.

What were your biggest challenges, transitioning from supplying in bulk, to supplying to individuals?

We had to refresh the farm completely. While we previously planted one crop per acre or half an acre, we would now have to partition each crop into smaller segments. Essentially, we were moving from planting four items to about 15.

And remember, our customers had weekly requirements in small quantities, which meant that each needed the crop to rotate on a weekly basis. We came up with a grid system of acres, rows, beds and lines.

For instance, we planted onions in acre one, row one, bed one. Then waited a week, and planted the second bed of onions, waited another week, planted the third bed. As a result, each of these beds was ready for harvest one week apart, enabling us to have a consistent weekly supply for our customers.

How smoothly did the process run? 

We learned as we went along. The most complicated thing was understanding the needs of the customer. See, if you are dealing with a restaurant franchise, it is simple, because they can buy your entire harvest week after week. However, you find yourself at their mercy, if anything happens to that account, then you are stuck with the crop you cannot sell.

Also, bigger franchises typically ask for a credit facility, but as a farmer, you have immediate costs to meet.

It became clear that my new mode of business made it imperative for me to keep a multitude of customers happy all at the same time, while meeting diverse needs.

Do you feel you’re on the right track?

Absolutely! I used to spend two hours a day driving to work, multiply that by five days a week, 12 months a year, you get 24 days. Twenty-four days a year spent in traffic, that’s my entire leave. Most importantly, these are prime hours I’d rather be spending with my family.

They had done a study on satellite farming. One of the things they said was, it is intrinsically designed to fail.

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