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How I injected life into shaky tomato business


Christine Opiyo, 36, says her love affair with farming started when she was 11.

She learnt how to prepare a tomato seedbed and nurture then to full maturity.

Fast forward to today and Ms Opiyo runs a successful 40-acre tomato farm in Selengei village, Kajiado East constituency at the banks of River Ewaso Nyiro. Though she is now stable, she says it has been a journey of highs and lows.

"I started with leasing 10 acres of land two years ago and put five acres under tomatoes. Shortly into the venture the shallow well dried up leaving us with no water to irrigate the crop. I made losses from that experience," she recalls.

 Ms Christine Opiyo a tomato farmer in Makueni.

To make it, she relocated from that piece of land to another one at the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro river, where she is now. Tomato farming is capital intensive and she spent a significant amount as startup capital. Most of the money went into fertiliser and pesticides purchases.

"I didn't know about soil testing benefits, I pumped a lot of funds in fertilisers without consulting an expert, the farm was green but yields were low. It is important to do a soil test as this will assist in knowing what to feed your crop with. In the past I would just buy inputs that the farm hand would ask for.

Grow right variety

"I was so overwhelmed by the amount of money I was spending I almost quit. I recall someone telling me that I was a 'telephone farmer'. I decided to take charge," she says.

Not one to give up easily, Ms Opiyo, put up another brave fight after her farm was hit by a serious infestation of 'tuta absoluta'. Her efforts to control the pests saw her buy costly wrong pesticides.

Tuta absoluta which is also commonly known as Tomato Leaf miner, leads to reduced yields and fruit quality. The main damage is noticed on the leaves and fruits, but flowers and stems can also be affected. The distinctive symptoms are blotch-shaped mines in the leaves.

Dr George Mbakaya says an effective control of Tuta absoluta starts with identifying the leaf miner. To do this, use insect traps baited with pheromone. The baits will capture the pests and reduce their numbers. Place the traps in the crop field strategically to capture the male insects. This method can be effective in low infested field or complement other control measures. She also learnt importance of growing right variety. "Before turning to Big Rock F1 tomato variety, I used to plant any tomato variety. I noticed that when buyers came they would ask which variety I was selling and they would reject it. I later came to learn that Big Rock F1 variety was the preferred type because it could stay in the market for almost a month and it doesn't break during transportation," says the farmer. She also got baptism by fire from brokers.

"In my first tomato farm, brokers would call and promise to buy the produce hence I couldn't sell to any other buyer. They kept me waiting but they didn't show up. It was hectic as I was forced to sell my tomatoes to anyone who shows up. I discovered that they are the ones that dictate the market prices," she says.

To outsmart the brokers, she came up with an idea of transporting her tomatoes to the market so as to evade brokers. The above challenges led her to seek the services of a professional. She brought on board an agronomist, Danstan Wekesa from AgriBora to manage the tomato farm. Danstun Wekesa says tomato farming is not for the faint-hearted. Before you start, you need solid capital, a constant water supply, knowledge on crop nutrition, and pest and diseases management.

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