Under the scorching sun, Eunice Ateti and her group of women are harvesting tomatoes , piling up crates at the corner of their farm. It’s their second harvest, and the count is at 40 crates with expectations soaring to hit at least 100 by season’s end. This remarkable success stems from a journey that veered from pastoralism to crop farming, triggered by the harsh impacts of climate change.
In their first harvest, the group got 76 crates, which they sold to individual buyers in Kiserian, at Sh1,500 per crate.
“If we harvested 76 crates of tomatoes in our first attempt with all the challenges, then our target must be more than 100 crates because there we have some experience,” says Eunice, during a visit to the farm located in Eremit area of Kajiado West, Kajiado County.
Traditionally reliant on livestock, the Enduata Self-Help Group, led by Eunice shifted gears when climate change-induced droughts devastated their herds.
As a pastoralist, Eunice never gave priority to crop farming. For eons, they fancied animals such as cattle, goats, sheep, and camel as sources of their livelihoods.
Faced with no choice, they delved into crop farming, cultivating maize, watermelons, and tomatoes on a small scale. However, water scarcity posed a significant hurdle. Undeterred, Eunice and her group transported water using jerry cans, donkeys, and motorbikes to irrigate their farms.
A pivotal moment came when agricultural extension officers introduced them to the Kenya Climate-Smart Agriculture Project (KCSAP). With a focus on increasing agricultural productivity and building climate resilience, the project addressed the water scarcity issue by rehabilitating the Eremit water springs and providing ample water to the community. The KCSAP project kickstarted the tomato venture, offering training, seeds, irrigation equipment, fertilizer, and pesticides.
Initially apprehensive due to tomatoes’ perishable nature and lack of proper storage, the group persisted, determined to learn and succeed.
“One of the issues that concerned us is that we knew tomatoes are perishable and we did not have proper storage facilities to keep them after harvesting. We pleaded with the project officers to give us an alternative crop with a long shelf-life but insisted on tomatoes, promising to train us on better management of tomatoes,” she explains.
The training covered every aspect, from land preparation to marketing. The rejuvenated Eremit water spring, with installed pipes and troughs, transformed the community, inspiring more people to embrace crop farming.
“After planting, tomatoes picked up well, in fact, we always want to be on the farm tending to them,” Eunice explains.
Esleen Parkolwa, another member of the Enduata Self-Help Group says the KCSAP project arrived at the right time; otherwise, she cannot imagine what they would be doing today.
“You know, the drought came and wiped out our livestock. After that, we tried farming, but it was also not easy since there wasn’t enough water for the crops,” she narrates. She recalls how she walked long distances, carrying tens of jerry cans, to water her crops.
After all the struggle, she only harvested 20 per cent of what she had planted and felt very discouraged. At the time they were invited to a meeting and first met the team from KCSAP, Ms. Esleen had vowed not to go back to planting maize anymore. She followed people who had been invited, not knowing what they were up to. On arrival, they were introduced to the project that promised to support them.
She says there were hundreds of people attending the same meeting and were asked to form groups. “We formed our group as neighbors,” she says. They later received training she terms valuable for tomato farming. Initially, they had doubts if they would succeed with tomatoes but only accepted after the KCSAP team agreed to support and walk with them throughout the farming season until harvesting time.
Today, she confesses that accepting tomatoes is the best thing that ever happened to them, as they’re now witnessing the benefits of farming tomatoes. She says, “We sell and make money that is now helpful in our homes. This is just the beginning; we want to go as far as possible with this farming.”
Apart from the group’s tomatoes, Ms. Esleen has also established her tomato farm, currently expecting her first harvest in a month. She praises her tomatoes in a half-acre farm, saying they look healthy and will definitely give her higher yields. She applies the skills and knowledge from the project. She promises to expand her farm with time, to more than two acres and also plant maize.
Conscious of the effects of climate change, Esleen is also planting fruit trees, hoping to get fruits as she conserves the environment.
The once-quiet village of Eremit is now renowned for tomato production, attracting buyers from various towns. The group’s income not only pays employed guards but also sustains members’ families and supports their children’s education.
Eunice emphasizes the shift in perspective: “We have come to learn that we relied too much on livestock, yet there are other ways, like crop farming, to source our livelihood.”
Despite challenges such as the initial market hunt and identifying diseases, the group persevered, demonstrating the triumph of resilience and adaptability. The transformation from pastoralists to thriving tomato entrepreneurs paints a succulent success story for Eremit, proving that even in the face of adversity, communities can cultivate prosperity.
Most arid regions are synonymous with pastoralist communities, but according to expert Carol Mutua, these areas can also thrive in tomato cultivation if there’s a consistent water source for irrigation. Ms Mutua cautions against excessive rainfall, noting its adverse effects on tomato growth. Too much rain can lead to increased pest and disease occurrences, particularly blight, and cause the fruits to rot.
Highlighting the importance of staking, Mutua distinguishes between determinate and indeterminate tomato varieties. Determinate varieties, suitable for outdoor growth, don’t need support, and include Cal-J, Roma VF, Zawadi, and Rio Grande. Indeterminate varieties, ideal for greenhouses and fresh markets, require support and consist of Marglobe, Monset, Money Maker, and Kentom.
Staking, Mutua emphasises, is crucial for ensuring clean fruit production, protecting against soil-borne pests, facilitating spraying and harvesting, and promoting exposure to light for increased photosynthesis.
In regions experiencing excessive rainfall, she suggests greenhouse planting as a viable option, contingent on the availability of water for irrigation and initial greenhouse setup capital.
To address market gluts, Mutua recommends off-season planting, aligning tomato harvests with periods of higher demand during the rainy season to maximize profits. Drip irrigation, requiring minimal water usage, can facilitate this strategy.
She advises farmers to store ripe tomatoes in low-temperature conditions for extended shelf life. Additionally, value addition through the production of tomato sauce, paste, or ketchup can further enhance earnings.
To combat pests and diseases, Mutua advocates for best practices such as crop rotation, weed-free fields throughout production, and the removal and proper disposal of infected plants.
Clean and certified seeds, yellow sticky traps, or pheromone traps for pests, and the judicious application of chemicals are among the recommended strategies.