When Raymond Mwiti retired from military service in 2005, he had a sole mission, go into farming full throttle.
After hanging his military boots, the 68-year-old former soldier established a thriving farm off Nanyuki-Meru Highway in Laikipia County.
As you approach it, you may not need to ask much for directions; you just request to be directed to ‘kwa Major’ farm as he is locally known.
Dressed in a navy blue T-shirt and a pair of grey trousers, we find Mwiti busy weeding. ‘Farming is good therapy,” he says.
He grows potatoes on large scale and maize, peas, beans, onions and vegetables on small scale.
“I have been doing potato farming for more than 10 years now. I started in 2002 while still in service but I stopped at some point since I could not balance between work and farm life. But when I retired, it was an easy transition,” says Mwiti.
Having settled on growing potatoes, he had to find a strategy to cope given that the area is flooded with potato farmers.
“There were many farmers growing potatoes. The prices are low most times and middlemen further compounded the problem. To cope, I had to change strategy.” That is why he embraced contract-farming.
“I grow specific potato varieties to avoid high competition in the markets. I have been contracted by several companies to grow potatoes purposely to make fries and crisps,” says Mwiti.
Mwiti says he grows monitou variety that fries making companies like Holland, Red Gate like because of their chipping and crisping quality.
Previously, the father of five girls used to grow shangi variety common for household consumption but changed to monitou because of its positive attributes.
Manitou is a high yielding red skinned table variety with light yellow flesh. It is suitable for roasting, home fries and mashed.
When ready, he sells a kilo between Sh25 and Sh42 and on a good season, he makes about Sh320,000 from an acre of potatoes in four months.
According to the managing director for Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, Nairobi (KEPHIS) Dr Esther Kimani, a farmer observing best potato farming including using certified seeds can yield about 250 bags of 50 kilos from one acre.
If a kilo sells at Sh42 during short supply a farmer will earn to Sh525, 000 per acre if they observe the one meter spacing or crop and drip irrigation of about three liters per hour, per crop in a day.
Laikipia County agriculture chief officer John Mungere says an acre of land in Umande area can produce about 50 bags of potatoes if farmers observe good husbandry and proper irrigation.
To spread risk and boost his income he plans to diversify.
“I have 600 seeds of Markies variety that I plan to plant on three-quarter acre. I expect to harvest 8,000 kilos after four months and earn about Sh200,000,” says Mwiti.
These potato varieties are highly desirable by commercial companies due to their long dormancy period, meaning they can be stored for six months without sprouting or rotting.
Other qualities include resistance to tuber late blight, potato mop top-a viral disease that causes brown streaks in the flesh of the potato- and bruising.
“Monitou variety takes about four months to mature and it can stay in stores for six months after harvesting without going bad. The buyers prefer them over other varieties because they can buy in large scale. They also wouldn’t want to risk making losses in case of fluctuations or shortage,he points out.
Mwiti was formerly supplying potatoes to five different companies based in Kiambu, Mlolongo, Meru and Laikipia but some withdrew due to low supply.
Currently, he supplies to two companies in Nanyuki and Timau. Mwiti says there are other companies in Nairobi who are interested in buying his potatoes but the size of land means he cannot meet the orders.
“On my own I cannot meet these orders but if we join hands with other farmers we can make it work. I have approached other farmers to see how we can produce more than twenty tonnes.”