Want to start farming? Your complete guide to success

Joyce Nyongesa is a senior innovations manager at One Acre fund, a non-governmental organisation that works with small-scale farmers in Western Kenya, the Rift Valley and Central Kenya. A holder of Bachelor of Science degree in Horticulture, Joyce has dealt with thousands of farmers in her line of work. She talks to Smart Harvest about best farming practices and how farmers can work with her organization.

Before you go into commercial crop farming what do you need to consider?

Several things. First, you need to study the market. Who do you want to sell to? And when you harvest, will there be a demand for your produce?

Second, timing is crucial. Most farmers time the onset of rains. The problem with that is farmers harvest around the same time and this creates high supply hence lowering prices.

You should also look for proof that your produce will be quickly taken up by the target market. For instance, we know carrots tend to sell better and faster in central than in western Kenya.

What crops does One-Acre fund work with?

We have categorised them in four groups. We have cereals: maize and sorghum. Then legumes: beans, soybeans, groundnuts and lablab. We also work with farmers growing vegetables: collard greens (sukuma wiki) and black-night-shade (managu). The last category is horticulture: onions and tomatoes.

Among these, which would be ideal for commercial purposes?

All crops have potential of earning a farmer good returns. I would however go with horticultural crops.

Is it true that onions and tomatoes do well in dry areas – like Ukambani?

I believe that is a fallacy. Onions and tomatoes do well primarily in areas of good soil fertility. However, tomatoes don’t need a lot of water to produce a good harvest. In fact, too much rain leaves tomatoes susceptible to diseases. As for onions, rain (water) is only crucial in the first two months especially during bulbing.

Speaking of rains, from your fieldwork, are many farmers in Kenya still practising rain-fed agriculture?

As much as a lot has been said about this subject, majority of Kenyan farmers still depend on rainfall. It is no longer tenable to wait for rain. Because of climate change due to global warming, rains have become increasingly erratic. We generally have good amounts of rainfall but it’s not well spread.

How do farmers prepare for a future with more erratic weather patterns?

Select the crop well. Use the right crop varieties that would do well under the prevailing climatic conditions. These would be drought tolerant varieties and early maturing varieties.

Farmers can also explore other means like water harvesting (during the long rain seasons). You can dig water pans. At one-acre fund we have worked with farmers in need of irrigation. We have provided them with drip irrigation kits. Drip irrigation utilises little water.

It would also help a great deal to practice conservation Agriculture. For instance, mulching reduces evaporation of water from the soil. With mulching, plants can survive longer in low water conditions.

What is the one mistake a majority of crop farmers you have worked with commit?

Among many crop farmers, there is a general belief that crops, as long as there is rain, will do well without fertilisers. During planting, many don’t use fertiliser. But the yield is usually lower than they expected.

The other mistake is use of bad quality seeds. In some instances, it is because the farmer has no access to certified high yield seeds. I would tell farmers who can access seed companies to buy certified seeds as these have been tested to do well with our climate and soils.

Let me also point out that it is not very prudent for farmers to continue waiting for the rains. We can no longer depend on the rains. And if you really have to wait for the rains, prepare your land early so that when it rains it’s all systems go as opposed to land preparation after the rains have began.

How does One-Acre work with farmers to mitigate against these challenges?

We provide farmers with financial solutions by providing them with necessary equipment and farm inputs to achieve good harvest.

My office, specifically, carries out research on new innovations and technologies meant to make farmers’ lives easier. For instance, when a new seed variety is announced by research organisations like KALRO, we go through their findings.  We are able to advise our farmers on new developments.

We check with seed companies if they have seed varieties – for example seed varieties for dry areas.

Let’s go back to horticulture: why is it that most horticultural crops are grown under a greenhouse?

Crops grown under a greenhouse are high value crops that would otherwise struggle in an open field. Tomatoes are a good example. When grown under a greenhouse they are protected from pests, diseases and excess rainfall. This way they grow optimally.

Without a greenhouse can a farmer still grow tomatoes?

Absolutely. Everything that grows in a greenhouse can grow in an open field. However, the challenges of maintaining the health of the plant will result in lower quality yields. Also, crops grown under a greenhouse have longer harvesting cycles – which means, bumper harvest.

You talked about farmers failing to use fertilisers: what if a farmer wants to do organic farming?

Organic farming is possible if the farmer is committed to its practices like use of compost to maintain soil humus and fertility. At One-Acre Fund we train farmers who cannot afford fertilisers on how to prepare compost. It is actually a nice way of reducing costs involved while growing crops.  

Want to get latest farming tips and videos?
Join Us