Athletics star Leah Malot makes a run at coffee farming

Former athlete Leah Malot top dressing her coffee farm at Kongasis village in UsinGishu County on Tuesday 10 August 2021. She chose coffee farming after years of traversing coffee planting countries. [Christopher Kipsang,Standard]

Leah Malot won a gold medal at the All Africa Games in 1987 in Nairobi aged only 15 years.

After a career spanning 27 years in athletics, Malot is in another long race called coffee farming.

After she retired in 2009, Malot, who is also a nominated ward representative in Uasin Gishu, tried various farming ventures before she settled on coffee farming.

Though maize and wheat are dominant crops in the region, the athlete still took the risk.

Malot’s passion for coffee growing started when she visited Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer.

“Sometime back, when I was being chauffeured in Brazil I spotted large coffee plantations. I admired the crop and later, after returning home, I gave it a try,” Malot says.

To sharpen her skills in coffee production, she benefitted from training by the Uasin Gishu extension officers.

After several false starts, today, on three acres of her 20-acre farm, she has 2,250 coffee trees, and she is preparing the ground for more coffee trees.

 Coffee Variety

She grows the Batian coffee variety, which was introduced by the Coffee Research Institute in 2010. According to Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), Batian is a pedigree that is genetically closer to SL-28 and Ruiru 11.

“I am happy the berries are beginning to get ripe. The hard work is beginning to bear fruits,” Malot says.

She says she started off with 200 coffee seedlings, which she acquired through a county government subsidy programme, before expanding the crop.

Later, Malot says, she sought more Batian coffee seedlings at Sh40 per seedling after the 200 seedlings flourished.

“To avoid mistakes I worked closely with agricultural extension officers, right from preparation of the farm, to spacing and planting,” Malot explains.

Applied wrong fertiliser

She says preparation of the land was easy because the farm was previously under maize.

But at some point, within the first six months of planting, she encountered a hurdle that nearly destroyed the entire coffee farm.

She applied the wrong fertiliser causing 450 seedlings to wilt, and she had to replant.

She applied Calcium Ammonium Nitrate (CAN) which she used to apply on her maize.

“I was later told by experts that I used the wrong topdressing fertiliser. I also learnt that I had put the CAN fertiliser too close to the stems.”

Like other farmers, she has been relying on rainwater but with unreliable rainfall patterns, she has seen the need to adopt irrigation.

To implement the idea, she bought plastic tanks, which she uses to store water for irrigating the coffee farm during the dry season.

Having been at it for a while, she points out that pruning is a time-consuming exercise.

“We take a lot of care when pruning. When we have doubts whether to cut a branch during pruning, we consult an extension officer.”

Balance between nutrition

Coffee specialist Nicholas Maritim says the cash crop involves a balance between nutrition, pruning and disease control.

To avoid the mistake that Malot did, Maritim says the application of nitrogen fertiliser (80 grammes per tree) or less than a debe of farmyard fertiliser is applied six months after planting.

He says fertiliser containing nitrogen, potassium, sulphur, and calcium is applied between May and September in Uasin Gishu.

“Foliar fertiliser can be applied between March and April (in Uasin Gishu) when the coffee is flowering. This depends on the fertility of the soil.

“Coffee matures in two years and during this period, application of fertiliser at the rate of 150-250 grammes per tree is done before and after the harvesting season,” Maritim explains.

He says rust and coffee berry disease as well as aphids and mealybugs control is a continuous process in coffee growing.

“Farmers are advised to use superior chemicals in pest and disease control to avoid frequent use of substances,” he says.

He explains: “Pruning is done after harvesting and during the dry season. De-suckering is done during the rainy season.

Marketing challenge

Though Malot has started harvesting the crop, she is yet to sell.

But she is keeping her hopes alive as the Uasin Gishu County government has assured her of a ready market. She is among the first group of farmers to grow coffee in the maize-dominated area.

Though farmers in some parts of the country have been uprooting the crop due to market frustrations, Malot says she has never thought of doing that.

On the contrary, she plans to expand the land under the crop by an acre in the next season. To diversify her income streams, she has divided the farm into various sections where she keeps poultry and dairy and also grows maize.

Biggest lessons

One of the biggest lessons she has learnt is the importance of the application of right fertliser. Application of the wrong fertiliser in the wrong way caused 450 seedlings to wilt, and she had to replant in 2019.

Skilled labour is required in pruning. For newcomers, pruning should be done in the presence of an extension officer.

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