Ndengu farmers see hope in getting cash crop status

David Thuvi, a green grams (ndengu) farmer at his 70 acre farm at Katoteni in Kitui County. [Philip Muasya, Standard]

Two years ago, majority of farmers in Kitui county went into full blown production of green grams (ndengu) hoping to cash in on good prices promised by the county government. It was at a time that the county government, through governor Charity Ngilu was promoting ndengu farming as a cash crop through an initiative dubbed ndengu revolution.

The farmers were enticed by a promise of foreign markets, especially India and other Asian markets, where a kilo was to be bought at Sh100. This was never to be. What followed was a ndengu glut, where the market was flooded with the produce, resulting to low prices.

According to county government estimates, that season alone, the county produced 33,000 metric tonnes of ndengu, forcing the prices to plummet to lows of between Sh25 and Sh35 per kilo.

Compared to prices of between Sh60 and Sh80 per kilo during ordinary harvests, the ndengu revolution in the county was declared a total loss by the farmers, majority of whom have since shied away from growing the crop in large scale.

One such farmer is David Thuvi who has been growing ndengu in his expansive farm in Lower Yatta for years. On average, Thuvi would harvest between 150 and 200 bags of green grams, nicknamed the green gold of Ukambani. However when every farmer went into ndengu farming, buoyed by the promises of good prices, his harvest became a nightmare.

Today, Thuvi, like other farmers in the county has slowed down on ndengu farming. He says that poor prices and the market unpredictability pushed him off the crop, although not permanently.

“Currently I am not growing ndengu, even the last season did not. I was discouraged by the poor prices and decided to give it a break,” Thuvi told The Smart Harvest.

His views are shared by Nyamai Muithya, a farmer from Maliku in Kitui Rural who also suffered the same fate during the bumper harvest. However for Nyamai, he is still growing green grams but laments that the market is a challenge. Prices too are unpredictable, he says.

“The last season I managed 25 bags. I have since sold all of it although with difficulties,” says Nyamai, referring to the period between February and May last year. The market difficulties, according to Nyamai, include among others, poor prices offered by brokers who take advantage of the farmers’ desperation to sell their produce. He is in the league of farmers who still grow the crop despite the challenges.

“The biggest challenge in the market is unpredictable prices which are determined by brokers. The prices are never stable, you do not know how much to expect from your harvest,” Nyamai says. For instance, his last harvest was sold at between Sh50 and Sh70 per kilo at different times. 

Ndengu farmers in Maliku village in Kitui county [Philip Muasya, Standard]

It is this unpredictability of the ndengu market and its pricing that has fired up Kitui Senator Enoch Wambua to push through parliament, the Mung beans Bill, 2020 that seeks to recognise ndengu as a cash crop. (Mung beans is family name for green grams).

The Bill, which was recently passed by the Senate and forwarded to the National Assembly seeks to mainstream ndengu and obligate both national and county governments to promote the growing and marketing of the crop while giving farmers incentives.

It sets out responsibilities for both governments to support farmers with seeds, pesticides, storage and marketing of their crop nationally and internationally.

“The bill once passed into law will safeguard ndengu farmers from exploitative market and ruthless middlemen who profiteer from farmers sweat,” says Senator Wambua

The legislator explains that the Bill has gone through the first reading in the National Assembly and committed to the Committee of Agriculture for processing.

“If the committee recommends amendments and the House passes the Bill with amendments, those amendments will have to be reported to the originating House (Senate). A mediation committee from both Houses will then be appointed to develop a version of the Bill that is acceptable to both Houses,” explains Wambua.

The senator says that the spirit and the letter of the Bill is to benefit farmers by according them support to grow and market their produce. Through cooperative societies they will also be trained on how to add value on their produce, he adds.

The Mung beans Bill that also seeks to regularise pricing of the crop has rekindled hopes to farmers both in Kitui and other semi arid counties such as Makueni, Machakos and Tharaka Nithi where the crop does well and who now see the Bill as a solution to their problems.

“The Bill is godsend and we urge parliament to pass it into law. Ndengu is a crop that can really revolutionise Ukambani because it requires only short rains. If the market challenge is addressed, then farmers stand to gain a lot,” said Nyamai, sentiments echoed by Kalama Nzomo, a farmer from Kitise in Makueni County.

Mr Thuvi says he is also willing to go back to growing the crop in large scale if the legal framework is favourable to farmers. Many share this feeling.

“If ndengu is recognised as a cash crop, then it will have a positive impact to farmers…marketing has always been a big challenge. Local farmers have capacity to produce the crop in plenty as demonstrated during the ndengu revolution, our climate is also favourable,” noted the farmer.

Dr Temi Mutia, the county government value addition specialist hails ndengu as a crop with a potential magic wand to create wealth for farmers if its management is well handled.

“In local supermarkets you find a kilo going for about 200 shillings yet it is just packaging. This tells you it is a crop with significant wealth potential for farmers,” Dr Temi says.

The officer notes that the county government is in the process of investing in processing plants to enable farmers handle their harvest locally, adding that ndengu farmers are also being provided with hermetic grain bags to guard against post-harvest losses occasioned by weevils and other pests.

To cushion their farmers from losses, Makueni county government in 2018 partnered with 125 self-help groups and cooperatives where the groups were advanced money by the government through a social fund initiative dubbed Tetheka Fund. Through these groups, the farmers would sell their produce at Sh55 per kilo, where the produce would be stored until prices improved.

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Ndengu cash crops