Rosemary Odinga on the good, the bad and the slimy of snail farming

Rosemary Odinga cleaning a snail at her farm in Upper Hill taken on 13th April 2015. PHOTO:WILBERFORCE OKWIRI/STANDARD]

Snail meat is tantalising and super nutritious. Before you say “yuck”, read on. Not only is the meat amazingly sweet (it tastes like fried gizzard dipped in butter) it has a high demand from the high-end market that is so huge; farmers who have ventured into it cannot satisfy that market.

Now, before you dash to your farm to collect all those random snails that have been ravaging your crops, find out what it takes to be a successful snail farmer. Smart Harvest caught up with Rosemary Odinga the only one of her kind in Kenya (according to Kenya Wildlife Service, which issues the license).

So how did she slide into this venture?

“I started this project as a hobby in 2007. Before I started, I had gone to Nigeria where I had the privilege of visiting former Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo. He is one of the biggest snail farmers there. He is the one who challenged me to think about farming. He was so convincing with the snail farming, I promised to do something when I came back home.” says Rosemary, eldest daughter of former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

When she came back home, she did intense research on the same.

“I visited the University of Nairobi and met one Musombi (now deceased) a snail expert who was passionate about snail farming. I learnt everything from the types of snails, to their behaviours, ideal environment, feeding, breeding, market potential plus more. He saw my passion and volunteered to act as my mentor.” To start off, Musombi donated to Rosemary13 snails, the giant African land snail.

“As expected with new farmers, all the snails died save for two. I think they were exposed to heat, which is a no-no for them. Actually, snails thrive in cool temperatures and wet surfaces. That is why they multiply during the rainy season.”

To avoid such blunders, she constructed a greenhouse in her 25-acre farm in Kiserian and placed the two surviving ones there.

Within three months, they multiplied and were so many, I started donating to my friends who were foreigners. A French restaurant heard about my venture and placed orders. That is how the venture began to thrive,” says the mother of two.

She also brought on board three farmhands to help with the extra workload. Now she has 3,000 snails at various stages of their lives. Her farm Shelltops Ltd, packs the slimy creatures in 160gram bags (contains 24 pieces).

“The orders from high-end hotels became so overwhelming, I could not meet it. Because of the pressure, I decided to just focus on individual clients who comprise expatriates and Kenyans of foreign origin. But I also supply to a few upmarket restaurants,” she says.

Irresistible as snail farming may sound, Rosemary is quick to offer a disclaimer.

“I know this thing may have all dynamics of a quail project — zero capital, zero labour, an ever ready market and profits pap! Far from it. There are several steps a farmer has to go through before they can say be allowed to rear snails,” Rosemary shares.

First, a farmer has to obtain a license from Kenya Wildlife Service because the creatures are categorised as wild. And before KWS issues you with that license, you have to demonstrate that you have the knowledge and capacity to rear them.

“To meet those stringent KWS standards, I used to work closely with the late Musombi. I am also in constant touch with Obasanjo, who is like my mentor. He always calls to check how I am fairing on with the project. When he visits Kenya, he always passes by my farm.”

After passing that test, the next challenge for the farmer is getting a conducive place for the creatures.

There are different ways of rearing snails, the free range system. This is basically placing the snails in a shamba as opposed to a closed structure like a greenhouse.

If one chooses to go the greenhouse system, one has to get containers like basins, which are to be filled with soil and sprinkled with water to keep the soil moist.

“You do not just get ordinary soil. There is a special one that I buy then I ‘enrich’ it. Prior to commencing the project, the environment on which the snails develop remains ideal.”

Rosemary has equipped herself with all info snails, she talks snails like a Maths professor cracking complex algebra formulae.

“Snails are hermaphrodites, meaning they have both male and female sexual organs. There are different types of snails Giant African Land Snail – Achatina fulica, Garden Snail – Helix aspersa and Roman Snail – Helix pomatia. Each category has different species, for instance, under the Giant African Land snail, there is the Achatina Achatina from West Africa, Achatina Marginata from West Africa and Achatina Fulica from East Africa. The species vary in body features like size, the shell and the general structure.

Rosemary specialises in Achatina Fulica from East Africa.

The creatures feed on vitamins so their diet comprise kales, cabbages and fruits like paw paw.

To ensure that the snails thrive and breed well, there are certain aspects that a farmer must get right.

“One is the temperature. Snails thrive in cool moist environs. They hate the sun. The soil type must also be right and contain the nutrients they need. That is why a farmer cannot just scoop soil from his farm, put in a basin and dump the snails. The soil has to be specially treated,” she explains.

When being packaged for sale, chicken and livestock are slaughtered, so how are snails prepared before they hit the market?

“Some people kill them by placing them in boiled water while others suffocate them. For us, we do not use ‘crude’ methods because our clients are sensitive and they would not eat the meat if they knew that the animal was butchered like that. I will not divulge that secret but let me just say we do it in a “special way’ which adheres to international standards,” she says with a chuckle.

So what would she tell young people who would want to venture into snail farming?

“Snail farming is lucrative, but there are very strict requirement from Kenya Wildlife Service. This is not just something you jump in; you have to read extensively to know snails in and out,” she says.

“Having said that, I would like to encourage them to do their research and embrace unique projects. They should look beyond the obvious.”

Parting shot?

“I believe engaging in farming is a sign of patriotism because one is contributing towards food security. The government should put in place policies that encourage young people to take up farming as an economic activity,” says Rosemary.