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Lessons from organic farmers who dared to dream big

Esther Kagai, an organic farmer and trainer on her Kiserian farm.

Peter Gicharu was a small boy in 1953 when he began farming. He was in a primary school near Mang’u, Kiambu County, and growing food crops in the school garden was part of practical lessons in agriculture.

Back then, Gicharu did not know that what he and the other pupils were practising was organic farming. He, however, remembers that they did not use any chemicals to enhance soil fertility or kill pests, but instead used compost material and mulching to grow food crops.

The former banker who retired in 1987 after 20 years in the financial industry is an organic farmer in Upper Matasia, near Ngong, still using similar methods he learned in school, close to 70 years ago. Making Biblical reference, Gicharu says this was the kind of agriculture that “God directed Adam and Eve to practise because He knew the benefits.” 

“Back in my youth, we would clear some bushes and put the cutoffs in a heap where we would then add water and ashes. Then we would turn the mix in about two or three weeks to allow decomposition to take place,” says Gicharu.

Gicharu encountered the use of synthetic fertilisers later on when he grew up. “I didn’t think the use of chemicals was a good idea. I thought it made farmers a bit lazy.”

Boost soil fertility

Today, Gicharu is among a growing crop of agroecological farmers in Kenya who are using ecologically-based methods to control pests and increase soil fertility. Such farmers employ environmentally friendly methods, including biological fertilisers and cover crops that add nitrogen in the soil.

For instance, they grow leguminous crops such as beans and then slash them off before maturity to infuse nutrients into the soil.

According to Kenya Organic Agriculture Network, the country has about 173,000 hectares under organic farming, or 0.7 per cent of agricultural area.

Globally, as of 2017, there were 70 million hectares under organic farming, representing 1.4 per cent of all farmland, with Australia leading with 35.6 million hectares under organic farming. Argentina and China came second and third with 3.4 million and three million hectares under organic farming respectively.

The global market for organic food is estimated to be worth $100 billion.

Organic vegetables in a farm in Kiserian.

While some single farms under organic farming may run into hundreds of acres, many farmers in Kenya practise such farming in small plots, the home’s backyard with some even making use of balconies in urban homes.

Small spaces

Esther Kagai is one such farmer whose half acre farm in Kiserian is an example of how to make use of limited space to practise sustainable agriculture. Like Gicharu, Kagai uses organic manure to infuse important nutrients into the soil where she is propagating not only staple foods such as maize, beans and bananas but all types of herbs such as apple mint, sage, lemon thyme, oregano and lavender.

The farming consultant who holds a degree in organic farming from Uganda Martyrs University, a diploma from the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming, and a certificate in biointensive agriculture from Ohio, USA, had a brief stint in teaching before immersing herself in organic farming.

A trained P1 teacher from St. Mary’s Bura Teachers Training College, Kagai taught briefly at a primary school in Banana Hills in 2006 but the meagre remuneration made her to quit. With her strong credentials, she was hired as a trainer at Afya Plus, a USAid project where part of her assignment was to train others on how to set up kitchen gardens. Her career in organic farming had begun.

“I chose organic farming because it is safe and healthy to humans and animals. It is also easy to practise because we use locally available materials,” she says.

To utilise the small space, Kagai uses gunny bags, old tyres, and reinforced polyethylene to create cascading gardens, all created in ways that make them retain water and other nutrients.

“Sometimes people think that to farm you need a big area but organic farming can be done even in small spaces as long as you use the right techniques. It is even possible to make good sales from a small farm than in a big farm but whose soil nutrients have been depleted through monocropping and overuse of chemical fertilisers,” says Kagai who is also the founder of Community Sustainable Agriculture and Healthy Environment Programme.

Carol Njema, an organic farmer in Ongata Rongai since 2009 is among those being trained through Kagai’s organisation. Njema was introduced to this type of farming by a friend as a means of emotional therapy after losing a loved one.

“Then it became a lifestyle,” she says. Her home is surrounded by vertical gardens where she too propagates various vegetables and herbs.

“After receiving training, I hope to spread the organic gospel to my family in Murang’a,” she says.

Martin Njoroge, the programmes officer at KOAN, says more Kenyans are embracing organic farming after noting the economic benefits as well as health benefits.

Justus Monari, a farm manager at Kisii Agricultural Training Center applies organic manure in one of their demo farms on 6/5/2021. [Sammy Omingo,Standard]

However, he says, organic farming should not be viewed simply as a “traditional” way of farming stating the methods being employed currently have to meet high scientific standards.

“Organic farming employs modern methods to grow crops in a sustainable manner. For example, you must maintain soil nutrient balance by performing periodic soil tests. You must also follow a crop rotation calendar that dictates that you start off with heavy feeders such as tomatoes, pumpkins or capsicums before moving on to lighter feeders,” says Njoroge.

However, there have been concerns from Kenyans that organic foods are more expensive than those grown using conventional methods.

“Our aim is to create direct links between farmers and traders. This will ensure that prices are harmonised since farmers and traders in our network are certified. That way, it will be easier to call out anyone with improper business practises or those who inflate costs of our produce,” says Njoroge.

Kagai says although organic farming does not require a lot of inputs, it is nonetheless labour intensive and that might explain the slightly higher markup on retail prices.

“Look, you need to hire people to work on the farm, make sure your soil has got the right nutrients and this may require some soil tests while you still have to pay yourself if you are farming for commercial reasons,” she says.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation increasing demand for organic foods will spur innovations while increasing the economics of scale; measures that will reduce the costs of production, processing, distribution and marketing.

To those who still think such foods are expensive, Kagai has a message for them: “Buying medicine is more expensive than buying foods grown in a sustainable manner.”

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