The average age of a Kenyan farmer is 58 years according to latest statistics. Despite the incentives the government has put in place to encourage more young farmers to take up the venture, majority still shy away for various reasons.
But there is a group of daring, young, educated and self driven farmers full of grit who are going against the norm and making great strides. Today, Smart Harvest and Technology focuses limelight on three young women making an impact in their own small ways in agribusiness.
Winnie Nduta, 23, Onion seller, graduate Chuka University
When the economic effects of coronavirus pandemic hit Kenya in March, Winnie Nduta lost her job.
“I was working as a customer service representative in Nairobi and was sent on unpaid leave. That is how I found myself in the cold,” she recalls.
She had to think fast. Coincidentally, her family had just harvested tonnes of onions in Nyeri County and were struggling to sell the volumes in Kieni.
She brought in her marketing skills and got to work.
“There were 2,000kgs of onions that needed to be sold. I approached my neighbours and friends to buy it. When it was obvious the numbers were not moving, I got on social media and started looking for buyers in all farming groups,” Nduta says.
Slowly, orders started streaming in and before she knew it, all onions were sold and more orders coming in.
“I saw an opportunity and that is how I started actively growing onions on our family farm. To meet orders, I also approached local farmers in Kieni to sell their produce to me,” she says.
Her strategy was simple, source onions from Nyeri transport them to Nakuru where she could sell the produce to local markets and individuals.
“Because I did not plan to have a business, I had to learn from my mistakes along the way which was not an easy journey,” Nduta recalls.
She used social media pages and word of mouth to get new referrals.
“Being young and new in this business I had to make my marketing pitches fun and relatable, so I described myself as the local Onion ‘Plug’ which is slang for a person who has the ability to get or supply hard-to-find items. I also interacted closely with brokers to learn rules of the game,” Nduta says.
She, however, faced storage challenges as onions are perishable.
“I had to rent a storage area which reduced my profit margins and also pay for fuel costs of transporting my onions from Nyeri to Nakuru County,”
Another big challenge she faces is price fluctuations.
“There are months when I have to sell my onions at a loss due to increased supply in the market. In such instances, I have to make several adjustments,” she discloses.
The cold and rainy weather has been an obstacle for her as soggy onions are not marketable.
She admits that her youthful age has many a times stood in her way while undertaking her business but she has learnt to deal with it.
“For some reason people expect all farmers to be old, rugged and dirty. So when they see a young woman in the market negotiating with middlemen they get surprised. I have learnt the hard way on how to take on the big boys. Head on. I am a new kind of farmer young, educated and driven and the market must accept that,” Nduta says.
As expected, brokers have also been a pain.
“I decided never to sell my onions on credit to brokers. As a strategy, I demand for cash on delivery, for all the onions I sell. That way I cushion myself from disappointments,” she discloses.
She has also learnt the value of patience and time keeping.
“I want to tell my fellow youth that farming is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Here, patience is everything, otherwise you will develop high blood pressure. Every day is a learning opportunity.”
Looking back, she is proud of the progress she has made so far.
“When I started few months ago I was selling 50kgs per week to basically to my friends, family and neighbours. Now I have a market far and wide and I sell 2,000kgs to 2,500 kgs per week at Sh40 per kg. Isn’t that progress?”
Christine Wanjiku, 24, mushroom farmer,
Christine Wanjiku, 24, and a graduate from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) has been a button mushroom farmer since November 2019.
Though at the onset things were tough, now she is settled.
When Wanjiku started her mushroom venture, she had 50 bales of produce, but within months, she has expanded to 260 bales of growing mushrooms and a stable market at Kenol, Murang’a County.
“I cannot meet the demand from supermarkets some days. The demand for mushrooms is huge.”
She shares her journey of highs and lows with The Smart Harvest and Technology. After graduating in 2018, she searched for a job for months in vain. Instead of idling, she chose to try her hand at mushrooms farming.
“I did research and discovered a huge demand for it. I joined farmers’ online groups and got links to a mushroom farmer offering training at Sh3,000 per session.”
From the training, she learnt the ropes of the game from production to harvest.
Like all young farmers with great ideas, when it was time to roll out, she faced a hitch. Lack of capital.
“I had no collateral or business plan and convincing institutions to trust me with their money was not easy. I spent months looking for capital. It was draining but I never gave up,” she recalls.
Her friends and family finally chipped in and she was able to buy the materials she needed for mushroom farming.
Slowly, she has overcome the financial challenges to establish a stable mushroom unit. She has also perfected her art.
Mushrooms require damp and dark environments to thrive and for this Wanjiku has set up two dark houses for mushroom growing.
Starting out small her enabled her to pick vital lessons along the way.
“For success in this venture, one must take time to perfect the composting process because if you rush it or skip a step, you will lose your entire crop, at harvest,” she explains.
She adds: “Mushroom farming requires a lot of patience and there are no shortcuts. Any attempts to skip any of the steps leads to losses.”
She has also learnt to navigate the harsh market controlled by ruthless cartels and brokers.
“At first, they really used to intimidate me because of my age, but I have now developed thick skin and I negotiate with them like a pro. With confidence, even the toughest broker respects you. I tell them my price and stick to it. If they insist, I go my way.”
Power of technology
To jump over that hurdle, she uses social media aggressively to market her produce. “Social media is a great tool for marketing and I urge all agri-prenuers to come on board. You get direct contacts with clients and negotiate prices without negative influence of brokers,” Wanjiku points out.
To tap into value addition, she has started cooking demonstrations to encourage local consumption. She posts them online and she says feedback has been encouraging.
“Every week, I prepare meals using mushrooms and deliver them to my friends and neighbours, to try it. Mushroom snack is so sweet most customers take one bite and are hooked.”
She now has a loyal clientele base in her home area selling 50 packets of mushrooms weekly. “I sell a 250 gram packet of mushrooms at Sh160- Sh200 and luckily I never lack orders because mushrooms have a high nutritive value,” she says.
Mushrooms contain protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants with various health benefits.
The antioxidant content in mushrooms may help prevent lung, prostate, breast, and other types of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Maureen Wanyaga 29 Rabbit farmer
Maureen Wanyaga, 29, started mushroom on a tough note six years ago but now she is a successful rabbit farmer, who is a role model to many and a testament that with hard work and determination, the sky is the limit.
Like for all graduates, the narrative is the same for her- she cleared university, started searching for an office job but it was never forthcoming. Being an orphan, she had to think on her feet.
“When jobs were hard to come by, I settled on rabbit farming because I had previous experience with it when I when I was younger,” says the budding farmer.
She started her rabbit farm in Nairobi with five rabbits after acquiring a loan of Sh200,000 from a family member. She used it to buy materials to build the rabbit hatches.
After a year, the cost of doing business in Nairobi was high and she relocated to Nyeri County on her parents’ farm.
Because of the new environment, hundreds of her rabbits died and she struggled with marketing.
“I did not know that mongoose attack rabbits so one day I woke up and was met with hundreds of dead rabbits. I was devastated. I secured the house to avoid more attacks,” she recalls.
Slowly she picked up the pieces and fixed the loose ends. Now she has more than 3,000 rabbits and a steady clientele. Lucky for her, the Covid 19 pandemic has been a blessing in disguise.
“Believe it or not, business has been booming. People are looking for alternative sources of income having lost their jobs and I have numerous orders for young bunnies.”
She faced a small setback few months ago when her rabbits started dying after eating toxic feeds.
“In the last one month I have lost 110 rabbits to aflatoxin poisoning, I have had to switch my animal feeds,” she observes.
But despite these odds, she has no regrets venturing into farming while her colleagues went for white collar jobs.