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Redempta Njoki, a farmer and selling lettuce, broccoli, mint leaves at the organic market at the German School. [Wilberforce Okwiri/Standard]
Healthy eating – which in large part includes organically grown food – is all the rage now. Even celebrities are clamouring for healthy food. You probably have some across a video of celebrities making the case for healthy food and by extension organic farming.

In the clip, Pinky Ghelani, John Allan-Namu and footballer Allan Wanga – among others – question the safety of food produced through conventional agriculture.

“This tomato (vegetable) has a poison that is slowly killing all of us,” they say in a set piece. “A poison that comes from the type of pesticides we use.”

At a more personal level, Pinky tells Smart Harvest that she is conscious about the food she eats.

“I am very weary of not only veggies but meat as well,” she says.

“Food can be medicine, but if we fill it with toxic chemicals we will notice – over time – that we have done a disservice to our bodies.”

She strongly believes that health starts with the food we eat.

Football is a high-intensity sport that depends on good physical health, Allan Wanga says.

“I have to be careful what I eat because it ultimately determines how I will perform on the pitch. My career is dependent on my health,” says Wanga.

The footballer admits that he was not always an ‘eat healthy’ proponent until recently.

“I was approached by Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) to be part of this campaign which aims at healthy food (farm produce free of toxic pesticides and similar chemicals) on our plates.”

He immediately bought into it, he says. The campaign made sense to him. For Wanga, it all started back to 2015 – the year he lost his mother to colon cancer.

He says: “My mother farmed tomatoes, maize and a few other staple crops. Farming is something she loved doing. And several times she called (my siblings and I) to send her money to buy pesticides and fertilizer.”

While he is aware that the cause of his mother’s cancer would never be definitively blamed on the pesticides she used as a farmer, Wanga says that could as well be the case.

“My mother is the first person in our family to die of cancer,” he says. “Her diagnosis was therefore shocking.”

Like Wanga, Allan Namu is also keen on healthy farming practices.

Namu, a celebrated journalist, says he grew aware of the correlation between toxic chemicals in the environment and the effects on human health as he worked on environment-related stories.

“As a bachelor I did not pay much attention to the food I ate. But after I got married and had a family I started becoming keen,” he says.

His wife, he says, has always been conscious about what they eat as a family.

“She is keen about where we buy groceries. And she cleans the greens with vinegar,” he says.

Namu says he buys from places that grow organic foods.

As the Covid-19 lockdown persists, he says, his family is planning to start a kitchen garden where they can grow healthy foods.

As more cases of chronic illnesses increase so does the belief in healthy (mostly organic) food.

According to Pinky, Kenya is blessed with fertile soils to grow healthy food. “Let’s not be too quick to make fast money and really look after our health,” she says.

For those interested in going the organic way, today we share with you lessons on the same.?

1.     Organic farming NEEDS PATIENCE

Your plans to become an organic farmer should never be inspired by money alone. Wanja Muguongo is a seasoned organic farmer from Makuyu, Murang’a County.

She says: “Organic farming requires work. It is not an easy biscuit. And certainly, it is not a fad – like the quail eggs shenanigans we witnessed a while back.

“When you get into organic farming you will not be rich overnight. That will never happen.

“You have the potential to be rich: but only if you stay the course and remain faithful to the practice. It will take years before the bucks start coming.

“The problem with joining organic farming with the mindset that you will get rich quickly is that you will quickly discover that successful farming (of any kind) is subject to other factors like the weather and soil fertility.”

To be an organic farmer, Wanja says, means that you will pay more attention to the crops.

Conventional farmers use pesticides to cut losses and fertilisers to boost yield.

An organic farmer has to put mind and energy to work to achieve both without using synthetic chemicals.

“That means greater dedication,” says Wanja.

2.     Do not seek ‘perfect’ produce 

When the average person heads to the market to buy some vegetables or fruits, they would probably pick the ones that look nice on the outside.

“They would go for the leafiest Sukuma wiki: perfectly shaped big leaves without blemishes,” Wanja notes.

Tomatoes would have to be round with a sheen. Avocados would be shaped like an hourglass with zero cracks on the surface. Spinach would need to be leathery without pest marks.

What the customer wants the customer gets. And so, many an organic farmer get worried when what they produce do not meet aesthetic expectations.

“Organic farming means that your crops will get attacked by pest. But if you adopt the best pest practices then the damage will be manageable,” Wanja says.

In other words, food produced through organic farming might come across as lackluster. But it is free from harmful chemicals and has high nutritional value.

3.     The farmer does not need to worry about their personal health

We already know that organic food has superior nutritional value and relatively safe for consumption.

Health benefits of organic farming do not start and end with the consumer alone: the farmer too is an indirect beneficiary of organic farming practices.

Synthetic chemicals, argues John Njoroge, were introduced into agriculture to increase yield and guarantee aesthetic qualities of produce.

Njoroge is both an agronomist and an organic farmer. He is also the Director at Kenya Institute of organic farming (KIOF) in Juja, Kiambu.

He says: “A conventional farmer sprays pesticides to fight of pests and herbicides to fight weeds. Most of these chemicals are applied through spraying – which aerosolizes the contents.

“The farmer breathes these chemicals. And sometimes has skin contact too. These chemicals are harmful to the lungs of the farmer.

“This is why over a long period of time the farmer will likely suffer from chronic illnesses that are otherwise not common in this part of the world.”

4.     Organic farming requires less financial input

Commercial farming, like the name suggests, requires heavy injection of capital. Input such as pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser cost a lot.

Organic farming gets rid of such expenses, says Njoroge.

“With a farm – or a system to grow food – and seeds you can produce food organically,” he says.

However, with financial burden greatly reduced, an organic farm is demanding: A farmer has to implement practices to replace pesticides and fertilisers.

An organic farmer practices composting, mulching, crop rotation, intercropping and development of organic pesticides.

“Nature is self-fulfilling,” says Njoroge. “For every problem it will provide a solution.”

According to Njoroge, nature has provided natural ‘pesticides’ that organic farmers can use. For example, he says, plants like garlic, neem, and chili have pesticide properties.

“As a farmer you have to make time to prepare such pesticides. You also have to mulch and perform intercropping,” he adds.

5.     There is great demand for organic food

Organic food in the Kenyan market is treated as premium. This status comes with a price tag above conventional farm produce.

“It is difficult to get organic farm produce in Kenya. And because of that demand outweighs supply. As a result, organic food is expensive,” says Martha Kihara.

Kihara is a subsistent organic farmer. Once in a while she will sell, or even donate, surplus from her half an acre farm.

Kihara turned to organic farming for health reasons. She had been suffering from allergic reactions which had seen her in and out of hospital.

“I had been prescribed for steroids. I did not want to take steroids for the rest of my life. I decided to eat organic food instead.”

Buying organic food every day would have been dented her budget and thus the idea to grow it herself.

“I grow pawpaw, lemon grass, strawberry, passion fruit, bananas, sweet potatoes, cucumber and a few other vegetables,” she says.

Her hope is that conventional farmers will go organic – so as to lower prices for organic food products and make them accessible to every Kenyan.

6.     Organic farming is good for biodiversity

Historically, excessive use and misuse of pesticides has been linked to contamination of surrounding soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity, destroying beneficial insect populations that act as natural enemies of pests and reducing the nutritional value of food.

Bees are very important pollinators for all plants – also beneficial to farmers seeking high farm yields.

Esther Bett, a small-scale farmer in Uasin Gishu County, says pesticides have an effect on non-target organisms are hugely underestimated.

Pesticides, notes Silke Bolllmohr, an Environmental scientist, spread into the environment through runoffs and can persist in the environment for decades.

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