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My soilless farming jackpot

By Gardy Chacha | January 6th 2021 at 09:00:00 GMT +0300

Any job-seeker right now is aware that things are tough out there and many businesses aren’t hiring. And no one knows this more than Mercy Gichuhi. Last year, upon graduation from university, Mercy joined thousands of graduates in the drudgery of job seeking. She was one of the lucky few as she somehow managed to get an internship.

“I was an intern at the office of the County Commissioner when I received a call to interest me in applying for a spot in a jobs-creation programme for youth,” she says.

The programme dubbed 'Young Africa Works' seeks to create one million direct and 586, 000 indirect jobs.

The programme by MasterCard Foundation – which has Sh12.5 billion for it –  is executed by KCB Bank Kenya is an extension of the bank’s 2jiajiri programme.

“The prospect of being a job creator instead of a job seeker excited me to no end so I applied to get in the programme and lucky for me, I was accepted,” says Gichuhi.

The first phase was going through a three-month in-class learning that resulted in a participant graduating with a certificate in Agribusiness Management from Miramar International College.

In August 2020, Gichuhi was accepted into phase two of the programme.

“Phase two is for anyone who is ready to take a loan to start their business. If you meet conditions for the loan (you have to be off CRB) then you look for a partner - someone you graduated with in the class. With your partner, you register a company then you receive funding, as well as professional counselling, and mentorship,” says Gichuhi.

How it is done

Gichuhi’s company, Janabichi Agri Solutions, owns a greenhouse that measures 26ft by 79ft. The greenhouse is one of 100 under the programme, located in Kibiku, Ngong.

Gichuhi and her business partner grow tomatoes inside the greenhouse using hydroponic technology; a type of farming that eliminates use of soil altogether. “Instead of soil, we use either pumice (ground volcanic rocks) or cocoa peat. The plant gets nutrients from water – in which we mix specific macro and micronutrients depending on the crop grown. “We do not need crop rotation or even to use new pumice/cocoa peat in future as these media are inert and only have the function of holding roots.”

Taking to the venture was no hardship for Gichuhi. She had been trained for it. “The curriculum for Agribusiness Management has both business management and the actual science behind hydroponic farming – one of the farming technologies we studied,” she says.

In total, Gichuhi and her partner received Sh800, 000 worth of capital in form of the greenhouse, farm inputs and support staff.

The whole farming enterprise, Gichuhi says, is meticulously professional. “It would be impossible to do it without the skills and knowledge we gained at Miramar. There is no room for mistakes.”

In the hydroponic system, it takes the tomatoes about three months to start producing fruit. It is 4 months and about 21 days since Gichuhi and her partner planted their first crop.

 “We have been harvesting twice every week for about 4 weeks now. In total, we have harvested 2,000kg of tomatoes. We will continue harvesting--twice every week, in the next five months. In the first month, we harvested on average about 250kg per harvest. But as time goes by, we expect this to increase to around 350kg.”

“The whole season for every crop lasts about 9 months: the first three months the crop is planted and grows. The last six months are for harvesting. At the end of the season – with some losses factored in – we expect to produce at least 20,000kg of tomatoes.”

Ready market

The Young Africa Works programme will run for five years: 2019 to 2024. Within those five years, every greenhouse business is assured of a market for their produce.

The programme has collaborated with local supermarkets and other large scale buyers who will purchase the produce at the rate of Sh60 per kg.

Would she take up a job now? I prod.

“No. I am committed to my agribusiness. I wouldn’t want to confuse myself with anything else.”

The programme gave me options in life

Derrick Mboya was running a cosmetics shop in Dandora when he heard about the Young Africa Works programme. He had just graduated with a degree in education but had quickly realised that any breaks in life he could get, he had to grab them. “The shop was not doing well,” he admits.

 Growing up in Dandora will quickly teach you that lesson, and looking around him, he couldn’t deny the attraction of drugs and crime that pulled in many of his peers.

“I am grateful I was accepted into the programme. I closed the shop just as I was set to join. It opened up my life options,” he says.

Upon completion of training, Mboya, with his business partner also got a greenhouse at the Kibiku site; and did everything else Gichuhi and her partner did.

They have so far harvested 1,700kg of tomatoes from their greenhouse. At Sh60 per kilogramme, they are looking at a turnover of Sh1.2 million every nine months. This translates to Sh133,000 per month.

“Upon deducting cost of production – which is approximately Sh18,000 – you remain with at least Sh115,000 per month,” Mboya says.

At the beginning of this month, Gichuhi and Mboya were part of a graduating class of 1,030 after training in hydroponic farming technology at Miramar International College.

Last month Mboya declined a job offer. Why? “Because this programme has offered me self-employment. And I am in charge of my time.”

Repay the loan?

Six months after starting production, each business is expected to remit about Sh72,000 per month, for 12 months towards the loan repayment.

All deductions factored in, by the end of five years, each business will have made approximately Sh6 million, money which both Gichuhi and Mboya say they would use to scale up their businesses.

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