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Farmer defies odds to make his fortune in parched land

By Peter Theuri | May 15th 2021
Timothy Mburu at his farm in Naro Moru.[Courtesy]

Every so often, Timothy Mburu sends an alert on Facebook group Digital Farmers Kenya. “The crop is ready for sale,” he announces, and when he posts a photo to support his message, behind him is usually a sprawl of cabbages, or garlic, or, often, potatoes begging to be packed into sacks and loaded onto a waiting truck.

And it is not unusual because that is what is expected of any good farmer, except it is, because Mburu comes from Naro Moru, in Kieni East, a semi-arid area where farmers cannot show much for their efforts.

Naro Moru sits on the shoulders of Mt Kenya, but on the wrong side, the leeward side, where rainfall is irregular.

In 2011, at a cost of over Sh1.2 million,  Mburu had a water reservoir installed on his land.

“It is half an acre, and can store between 30 and 40 million litres of water. With this, I can irrigate up to ten acres comfortably,” he says.

Drop of Water Counts

For a man who runs a campaign called A Drop of Water Counts, in which he encourages harvesting rainwater during the rare occasions it rains, he knows the pain of trying to make a fortune from agriculture without a good supply of water.

So, like he advocates, he harvests runoff water on such days.

“The first secret to farming is having a constant water supply. The government regulates water resources and so if you are reliant on that, such as water from a stream, then you will suffer a lot.

“When a drought strikes, you will be prohibited from using that water for irrigation,” he says.

He started his cultivation on a half an acre and later increased it to three acres on the family land.

But that was not enough for the man who focuses fully on farming, not courting distraction in the form of side jobs, and he bought an additional three acres.

Crop rotation

“There is no one time that I am cultivating the six acres at the same time,” he says.

A believer in crop rotation, he also lets the most recently used piece of land rest idle for a season or two to recover its fertility.

And he does mainly organic farming, 70 to 80 per cent of his farming not dependent on any chemicals.

One secret that has guided Mburu to success, from an unassuming farming enthusiast years ago to a man who is a consultant on farming, is to stick to select crops.

“You see farmers trying four, five, six different crops at the same time. This cannot work. You have to focus on a specific crop, or few crops. Crops need attention which when divided could lead to losses,” he says.

As such, his main crops are potatoes, cabbage and garlic, a trio he does not regret farming.

Only this week, he harvested his cabbage crop, selling a piece at Sh35. The cabbage crop was on one acre of land. He harvested around 14,000 cabbages.

mastered the markets

He has mastered the markets and knows when it is right time to do what crop.

“It is good to be a master of the off-season. When farming cabbage for example, you have to make sure that when the crop hits the market, we do not have an oversupply of cabbages.

“If the farms are green, then people have plenty of substitutes for the cabbages. Such scenarios should be avoided,” he says.

True to his word, if you visit the Digital Farmers Kenya, a Facebook group which is big on marketing of agricultural produce, many farmers have been posting their potatoes. With a sabbatical from potatoes, his cabbages are on demand.

Marketing on social media has been a big plus for him.

“Facebook links you up with many people. You have to make sure that you are realistic, that is, that what you post online is also the case in the real world. Do not frustrate the customer,” Mburu says.

Uptake of marketing through social media is now commonplace, with businessmen taking advantage of an increasingly tech-savvy population to sell far and wide. Only those who have adapted to the advancement in technology and to the changing preferences of consumers survive.  

“You have to also make sure that your presence is felt. You have to be visible. Let the buyer know you. Let the farmer grow with you.”

It is this determination that makes Mburu stand out in a group of very gifted farmers. He is disciplined, and he is focused. You will struggle to point out a mistake in his work.

“Make sure you know what your customer wants,” he says, alleging that Tanzanians dominate onion markets in Kenya because they know what the Kenyan consumer wants.

Medium-sized onion

“The consumer wants medium-sized onion, and that is what Tanzanians go for. The local farmer will go for weightier onions, looking at the quantity and not the quality that is yearned out here,” he says.

Mburu insists that for one to be successful in agriculture, they should make it a business and take care of it just like they would any other business that is their main source of livelihood.

And they have to be there for their crops.

“Distance farming is not tenable. You cannot be in Mombasa and you have a farm in Nairobi. Crops need a lot of attention and one has to be present all the time for them.”

One more thing that Mburu is quick to do is dismiss an archaic notion that farming is for failures.

“It should be known that farming is not for people who are unable to succeed in other fields. This perception of ‘this business has failed so let me go to farming’ should end. Farming needs skill, discipline. Farming is for the strong ones.”

Mburu is, clearly, a strong one.

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