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Ambition: How farmer built dairy empire in dry Makueni

Jonah Malika at his nursery where he grows seedlings for Brachiaria type of grass in Mukuyuni area of Makueni county. He has 10 acres under the grass variety while the surplus is sold to other farmers. [Philip Muasya, Standard]

When you walk to the home of Jonah Malika within Mukuyuni area of Makueni County, a giant grass store greets you. Nearby, a hand-operated baler and a tractor operated one lie next to each other.

And a walk into his expansive 50-acre farm gives one the impression that Malika, 83, is the undisputed grass kingpin of Ukambani.

It is here, where for over three decades Malika has built a grass empire that has earned him a fortune while providing the much-needed feeds to local dairy farmers and even those from outside the county.  

Much of the grass is stored in bales, some weighing up to 100kgs and which are readily sold to customers who come to pick from the home.

“We have a steady market, from within and outside our county in the Coast, Central Kenya and elsewhere,” says the farmer.

When The Smart Harvest visited his farm, Malika had sold 500 bales of Brachiaria type of grass two days earlier. He says a kilo of this goes for Sh20.

Brachiaria type of grass

Apart from Brachiaria that was introduced to him by International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in 2014, Malika also grows other varieties of grass such as Boma Rhodes and Napier grass.

His latest introduction to the farm is a high-yielding variety of sorghum known as Sugar graze sorghum which he says is highly nutritious. For this, he has four acres under the crop which is harvested after 60 days, giving 20 tonnes per acre. The crop is then allowed to regenerate and harvested again after another 30 days, this time, giving half yield per acre.

At one time, the farmer who also doubled up in dairy farming used to grow Sugarcorn yellow maize but abandoned the crop since it is harvested only once per season and its yield is low at 10 tonnes per acre in three months.

He grows the fodder crops in different parts of the farm where currently 10 acres are under Brachiaria grass, originally from Brazil while Boma Rhodes takes five acres. The Napier grass occupies eight acres of his farm along River Isuuni that cuts across the farm.

Meticulous with records

The farmer is meticulous with his records and knows exactly what to expect from his crops. For instance, he says Brachiaria produces between 150 – 200 bales per acre while Boma Rhodes gives 70 – 80 bales per acre. With 10 and five acres respectfully of the two varieties, this is too much fodder that can only be disposed of through selling.

However, being an old hand in the grass business that he started in the 1990s, Malika knows storage is key.

“This part of store here holds 3,000 bales, while that other part holds the same amount,” he says while showing his store.

Malika says, unlike other crops, grass is convenient to store since it is not attacked by pests, even thieves have little interest in it.

“My store there has no watchman, nobody is interested in stealing grass. And when it comes to returns, the grass is the only crop you can store for a year without chemicals and get paid in advance,” he says with unmistakable satisfaction. He however advises that the fodder should be kept clean and away from direct sunlight and rains.

For Boma Rhodes and Napier grass, a bale goes for between Sh250 – 300. His efforts have caught the attention of organisations such as Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) and ILRI who have trained him on pasture husbandry and who routinely hold learning workshops on his farm for other farmers and university students. ILRI provides him with free Brachiaria seeds

For this grass variety, Malika starts earning at the nursery level by selling grass seedlings to other farmers, a good number of whom have adopted grass farming for commercial purposes.

From his greenhouse, the farmer shows us a 1 by a 30-metre strip of the grass variety that is sold when it is 30 days old for transplanting. A section this size earns him Sh24,000, he reveals.

And when it comes to feeding, every grass variety has its own advantages. Unlike the other tropical grasses, the farmer says Brachiaria has high protein content and is easy to digest.

“It has high vigour thus producing more biomass even on low fertile soils and fast recovery after cutting. It produces fewer greenhouse gasses and its seeds do not lose the hybrid vigour,” explains Malika, adding that at nursery, the grass requires fine soil that is thoroughly mixed with manure.

Brachiaria can be fed to animals as green matter or prepared into silage and hay, similar to Napier grass while Boma Rhodes is fed as hay only. Sugargraze sorghum is used as silage and dry matter.

Strategic opportunity

Mr Malika notes that fodder production is a strategic opportunity for farmers in arid and semi-arid regions such as Ukambani where effects of climate change have seen depressed rains over the years leading to regular food crop failure.

He describes his farm as a pure organic farm, where the use of chemical fertilisers is discouraged and instead uses compost manure to grow his pasture crops. He also uses raw animal waste from a giant biogas plant that serves his home to grow the crops.

“If properly manured, a small farm will produce fodder throughout the year,” he states.

Mr Malika advises farmers in dry areas to make maximum use of the rains to conserve and stock fodder for use during the dry season.  

“Find out which fodder crops do well in your region…plant as much as you can during the rainy season,” he advises.

Grass farming is not labour intensive, says Malika, revealing that once it sprouts, it kills other weeds thus no need for tilling. He says the only labour involved is in cutting the grass and baling.

So how did the farmer find himself in fodder production, a venture that in the 90s would have looked odd, unlike today? He says this was out of necessity after he ventured into dairy farming where he started by crossing the kienyeji (indigenous) cows with hybrid. Soon he realised he needed a lot of fodder for the animals.

Telephone farmer

For years however, the father of seven was a telephone farmer as he concentrated on his textile and tailoring business located in Machakos Town.

Two years after he handed over the business to one of his daughters and plunged into the farm, Malika wondered why he had not made the decision much earlier.

”I could see good returns on the farm and that inspired me to do even more. My neighbours who saw tractors ploughing the farm as I planted grass thought I had lost my mind, but I was determined to succeed,” says the old man with a chuckle.

So determined was Malika that he traversed the country and even abroad to borrow ideas from successful farmers. A large scale white farmer he visited in England left him with an unquenchable fire to succeed.

“In farming business, you need to identify the type of farm enterprise that fits your passion, your interests, and the resources at your disposal. It is a matter of hard work and setting targets which you must strive to achieve with ferocious determination,” he says.

The farmer describes himself as a real hustler, who started off as a small-time tailor mending people’s clothes at a dingy kiosk located at the sleepy Mukuyuni market until he established a successful textile and tailoring franchise dubbed Malika Clothing Stores in Machakos town that had over 80 tailors working under him in the late 70s.

Today, the aged farmer is a respected village multi-millionaire, and all from the farm.

“I have never been employed. The young unemployed people should know that money is not in towns but in the farm. And there is easy money in fodder farming,” he says.

However, the farmer reveals that the baling machines are expensive and this can be a drawback to farmers. He says a hay baler costs a minimum of Sh1.5 million. Marketing the feeds can also be a challenge for rookie farmers, he adds, saying that farmers would find it easy by joining cooperative societies.

Mr Malika’s grass empire saw him educate all his seven children, and step-siblings without struggle. Two of his children live in the US and one is a resident of Sweden.

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