From kitchen garden to farm, woman practices climate smart farming on taro

Caren Atieno a lecturer at Rongo University attends to her Arrow root farm at Rongo University on November 30, 2023 she also explained on how she started the project and the reason. [Caleb Kingwara, Standard]

After sampling it in her kitchen garden, Dr Caren Otieno, 48, saw the potential in growing taro, popularly known as nduma in a rain-fed environment.

She knew that it was time to get it to the farm after successful research on the crop that she says is climate-smart.

Being a lecturer at Rongo University, she requested the institution to give her at least a half-acre piece where she planted 1,000 suckers of nduma.

She would sample nduma suckers from five different counties including Kiambu, Siaya, Busia, Kakamega and Kisumu before she embarked on planting.

Dr Otieno went ahead to plant samples at the institution’s greenhouse after which she chose a variety from Kakamega which she believed was tolerant to taro leaf blight disease.

“I now settled on the variety which I also realized was climate-smart as it could grow in a low rainy environment,” said Otieno.

The disease, according to agricultural expert Tom Omondi reduces the life of the leaves and results in the production of small corms and reduces yields by 40 percent if it goes unchecked.

For Dr Otieno's chosen variety, the affected leaves would just die off and allow the rest of the crop to continue growing and produce big and sweet arrowroots.

“The variety does not need any chemicals to treat the disease,” she narrates.

Dr Otieno also uses a cultural method of cutting off the affected leaf from the rest of the plant and throwing it very far from the farm to avoid affecting other crops.

When the Smart Harvest caught up with her, the mother of four was busy showing some youths from the institution how to harvest the arrowroots that had attained maturity.

She planted the arrowroots towards the end of March.  The arrowroots are ready to harvest after between seven to 12 months.

Dr Otieno says for better yields, one could use organic fertilizers. “For this farm, I have not used any fertilizer, the soil here is fertile and does not require any fertilizer,” She says.

She planted her nduma suckers normally just like any other crop.  Omondi, the expert explains that taro can be grown in free-draining and well-prepared soil.

He says taro root pieces are planted 80 to 100 centimeters apart.

“It needs to be watered well and kept well watered throughout the growing season. When due for harvest, the leaves would turn yellow and die back. The crop is rarely affected by diseases, except for taro leaf blight disease,” Mr Omondi says.

When planting, Dr Otieno digs a hole that is 15 cm deep for a smaller sucker and 30 centimeters for a bigger one.

She places a larger circumference to the sucker to allow water to accumulate around it because it is rain-fed.

One should not farm it too much and give it space to expand and avoid filling the planting hole so that water can collect around it.

 She says during dry seasons, the crop would not die off. To keep her farm going, Dr Otieno said they experienced a very serious drought for two months within the period she planted, they used to flood it twice a week.

She says during drought, nduma can be irrigated. Otieno has a ready market for her nduma as buyers come directly to the farm.

She sells one corm of nduma at between Sh100 to Sh200. The lecturer also uses the leaves of taro as vegetables as she encourages the community around her to adapt to eating them.

“There are abundant vegetables that are not being used. Taro leaves are rich in potassium, folate, vitamins A and C. I wanted to popularize the leaves to the locals who do not believe that nduma leaves can be eaten,” she says.

Dr Otieno explains that young leaves of nduma make the best vegetables. When preparing it, she lets the taro leaves stay in the sun for two minutes, boil them for five minutes and fries them after which they can be eaten with ugali or chapati.

The leaves are known to promote a healthy body weight, boost heart health and prevent diseases.

Agriculture CEC Lucas Mosenda says in terms of their areas of focus for the future, it is one of the crops that they are promoting.

“The first parameter that drives what we prioritize in the county is what the market demands,” Mr Mosenda says.

He says people looking for healthier lifestyles and crops, have seen a rise in consumption of crops which previously were considered very minor.

Mosenda encourages more farmers to venture into arrowroots farming saying it does not require a lot of investments and can be propagated easily from one farmer to the other.

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