How to run a booming tomato project
By Joseph Muchiri
| June 13th 2015
KENYA: Kirinyaga County is an agriculturally endowed land with breathtaking rice fields on the Mwea plains and dense, lush tea and coffee plantations on the upper sides, which neighbour Mt Kenya forest.
The picturesque is complemented by patches of blossoming horticultural crops in many parts of the county where farmers who have invested adequate resources in tomato, vegetables and French beans are reaping fortunes.
One such farmer is Githaka Nyingi, a young man minting serious money in his locality from tomato farming, just three years since he ventured into it.
When he talks about income verses cost from tomato farming, you can easily get carried away as he explains how you can make over a million shilling in profit from an acre of tomato in four month’s time.
He has a rider though: “Lucrative tomato farming entails precise planning and timing in addition to months of hard labour for one to have quality fruits at time of high demand.”
If you have travelled along Kerugoya-Kutus road in recent days, a short distance from Karia shopping centre you must have noticed tens of tomatoes packed in boxes ready for the market.
On both sides of the road, acres of tomato plants stand out as youthful farmers, disappointed by poor returns from maize, have ventured to the fruit’s planting.
Nyingi is among them and he has perfected the art of farming tomato profitably.
Prices of tomatoes keep on fluctuating due to market forces of demand and supply and this is what has discouraged some farmers from venturing into tomato farming.
To farmers who rely only on rain to farm tomato, their crop matures at a time when supply is so high that prices fall to a low of below Sh1,000 per box occasioning losses to farmers since the crop’s management is costly.
After observing tomato market behaviour, Nyingi rented a piece of land near a water pond to avoid reliance on rain-fed agriculture so that he times his tomato to mature when demand is high.
“Farmers in Mwea and Laikipia are favoured by even topography, less diseases and pests, and plenty of irrigation water hence their production costs are lower. They farm in large scale and when their crops mature they flood the market. During rainy seasons, they are unable to take their crops to the market due to poor roads condition and that is when my crop is at climax,” he says.
Nyingi initially worked in the tourism sector with East Africa Canvas but after the 2007/08 post-election violence, he quit.
During the breaks he would plant a quarter or an eighth acre of tomatoes in his small piece of land but did not put much attention to it hence the earnings were not significant.
In 2013, he was inspired by the money farmers in Mwea were making from tomatoes and he rented an acre piece of land and set aside money to adequately manage the crop, employing the best agricultural practices.
This entailed choosing hybrid seeds which are costlier than the conventional ones used by most farmers in the area and planting them in small polythene bags, which is labourious compared to planting on a seed bed.
Nyingi says hybrids offer better disease resistance, higher yield and possess other improved traits.
According to him, the advantage of growing tomato on polythene bags instead of seedbed is that the later get ‘shocked’ during transplanting hence the first flower dries up.
“I spent Sh150,000 tending the crop and found demand high such that I sold each box at between Sh4,500 and Sh6,000. I made sales worth Sh1.4 million from 220 boxes. I was motivated because I had never made such money in my life. I decided to concentrate on tomato farming,” he says.
Currently, Nyingi has mature tomato crops in his one and quarter acre farm.
When his tomato hit the market early this month, a box was going for Sh6,000 but as more tomatoes from other farms ripen and enter the market, price has fallen to Sh4,000 and is expected to plummet further.
He spent Sh250,000 tending the crop and if all goes well he expects to make sales of Sh1.6 million and Sh1.3 million profit in four and half months.
Tending tomatoes to yield such money requires great effort right from preparing nursery to harvesting.
Nyingi advises farmers to mix soil and manure in equal ratio then plant two seeds per polythene bag and then apply water.
Though one seed per bag is enough, the extra one is meant to replace those that fail to germinate or get spoiled during transplanting.
An acre of tomato requires seven tonnes of manure which he buys at Sh21,000 from farmers in Mwea, Kitengela or Laikipia.
In the nursery, one must water them in the morning and in the evening daily for the first week and afterwards in the morning only until they are about 25 days old.
“I transplant them between the 23rd and 25th day before the roots have firmly attached themselves to the bags. The land is ready at that time. This is by ploughing to loosen the hard pan, applying manure and burying it lightly with soil. I dig trenches 3ft apart while the spacing from one plant to the other is one and half feet,” he explains.
He applies a teaspoon of DAP fertiliser per tomato at planting, then waters twice per day by pumping water from the nearby Karia ponds until it rains.
After three weeks, he applies a tablespoon of DAP and 17:17:0 fertiliser in equal ratio per plant and another three weeks later he adds 17:17:0.
Spraying using relevant sprays at the right time is also essential for flowers and fruits to keep diseases, worms and blight at bay.
He says tomatoes also require support using stakes when they are one month old.
The major challenge he faces is a viral disease locally known as kathuri which is characterised by plant withering such that it gives forth tiny fruits.
There is also the yellowing disease identified by yellow leaves, which hampers fruits from growing big.
“Some diseases are incurable while others require expensive chemicals. Spraying is labour intensive and expensive. As my tomato grow I spend Sh10,000 on spraying. I must also be there to ensure there is correct mixing of chemicals,” he says.
He usually plants seedlings on February 1 so that the crop can be ready at May and the next crop on August 8 to time the crop for December.
Nyingi also farms French beans but he says they are not as profitable as tomatoes.
To safeguard his future when he might lack the energy to farm tomatoes, he has planted 150 bushes of batian coffee which is also blossoming and promising to bring good returns.
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