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Winning strategy for every tomato farmer

Patrick Kimani, 46, a tomato farmer from Kirinyaga County, the leading producer of tomatoes, has been a proud farmer. As he often does, he took full advantage of the space in his home to grow tomatoes.

He planted the seeds in December last year and luckily, they grew well and his farm was dotted with healthy tomato crop. Unfortunately, like Kimani, all tomato farmers planted and harvested at the same time and now the market is flooded.

Market intelligence

Since farmers are motivated by profits, with many of them producing at small scale, their major interest is in quantity, forgetting about doing market intelligence. With the a kilo retailing as low as Sh20, Kimani, has learnt painful lessons. He harvested ten kilograms of ripe tomatoes, with another 12kg of green one still on the plants and there is no market.

“Because tomatoes are perishable, I will have to sell the harvested produce at the price the market will dictate. It is better to sell them than have them rot at the farms,” he says.

But given that the cycle is a yearly problem, is there a way that farmers can avoid it? According to experts, the glut is avoidable if farmers work smart and are strategic in their undertaking.

Over reliance on rain-fed agriculture

One of the way to escape this is to cut overreliance on rain-fed agriculture. 

Crates of Red Tomato in Warehouse Storage

Dr Timothy Njagi, Development Economist and Research Fellow at Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development says the challenge has always been that farmers rely on rain and therefore produce at the same time. Given that they cannot be stored, the prices collapse and it is periodic.

A key intervention is for farmers to lobby the county governments to invest in cold storage chains.

Sell produce to non-traditional markets

Secondly, farmers should try and sell their produce to non-traditional markets.

“This is where a broker comes to your farm, looks at what you have and then he grades and give you the price,” says Njagi.

Investing in macro irrigation usually helps because that means one can vary the timing and not be reliant on rainfall.

More importantly, farmers should undertake market intelligence.

“Right now it may seem like there is a glut, but come May, you will find that there are no tomatoes,” observes Njagi.

Value addition

He points out that this is where value addition comes in.

“Farmers can learn how to make pickles, which can be used later, but to do this, you have to do market intelligence, so that you are aware of what consumers need,” says Njagi.

He notes that a lot of farmers in Uganda and Tanzania are large scale tomato farmers, who farm under greenhouses and therefore do not rely on rainfall.

“In Tanga, Tanzania, there is a lot of irrigation done there and they are able to supply tomatoes even in Mombasa during off season, they do market intelligence and they have the volumes,” said Njagi.

George Mbakaya, an expert in sustainable agriculture says since the tomato is  sensitive to heavy rains, most farmers shy away from planting them during the heavy rains season and opt to do it when the rains are moderate so that they do not incur losses in terms of diseases.

This timing is across all the farmers, so they plant at the same time and harvest at the same time and that causes the glut. These are farmers who mostly do rain fed agriculture.

But, there are farmers who do greenhouse farming. Since this is a controlled environment, farmers can produce all through the year, whether there are heavy rains or not.

“But majority of the small-scale farmers do it in open fields and therefore, timing is an impediment,” says Mbakaya.

A key thing is to keep a constant, smaller, and more manageable crop coming on just when its needed. Mbakaya notes that a few weeks ago, farmers and traders were getting tomatoes from Uganda, but now, tomatoes are coming from Kitale, Rimuruti, Mwea and all other tomato producing areas.

“This has nothing to do with the economic situation, but everything to do with the timing. So if farmers can adopt the greenhouse technology, then they can control their production cycle. As long as they are still doing the same things, the outcomes will be same,” he observes.

Planting the right amount of seed to have plants to supply the market for a specific period of time is important. As the growing season progresses, planting is done again a few weeks later so that the harvest will be spread out accordingly.

“And this glut will not even last long, by mid next month, people will again be getting tomatoes from Uganda,” notes Mbakaya.

He adds that Uganda has been able to master and time Kenya’s cycle, such that they produce when Kenya is off season. Mostly, the rains cause fungal diseases, which are controllable, what farmers fear is the cost.

“Look at it this way, if you were to invest in chemicals during the heavy rains season and you produce your crop off season definitely you will fetch higher market prices, so this compensates the cost for chemicals. This is what farmers do not understand,” says Mbakaya.

He advises farmers to plant in succession, by simply making smaller plantings separated by two to three weeks instead of planting everything at once. First, determine how much of a certain crop is needed for the market for a two to three-week period and how much room it will take to grow it. Second, break your planting beds into three or four sections to grow your two to three week supply of the vegetable.