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Kenya: Growing onions using new technologies

From his two-acre farm, Simon Nderitu stooped as he scrutinized his red bulb onion crop this season. “Before the project, I was farming because it was what everybody else did here to get food. But things have changed significantly for small-holder farmers who embraced a farming project led by Farm Concern International,” he said. Nderitu is among participants in an initial pilot project spearheaded by Farm Center International (FCI) which started with 2,000 people in 2007, but has since been scaled up to include 10,000 farmers of Kieni located in Nyeri County, Central Kenya. A combination of holistic extension and advisory approaches, the project instills good agro-practices for higher quality production, treats agriculture as a means to social integration, brings farmers and traders together in mutual business understanding, and ensures that government agricultural officers deliver service at the point of need.

It also fosters new technology adoption and advises farmers on sound financial practices like savings. Ultimately, it aims at improving the entire value chain, through innovative approaches like linking markets to farmers, farmers to sellers of farm inputs, creating personalized interactions between various stakeholders. Nderitu now knows how to prepare his land, secure affordable right seed varieties and plant based on seasonal projections and market demand.

Yields Treble

The project has enabled Nderitu to more than treble his farm yield. “Before 2008, I used to cultivate open pollinated varieties, which gave me on average 4,500 kilograms in a good season. But after adopting hybrid variety in 2008 and employing other good farming practices, the same piece of land yielded for me 7,000 kg in my first harvest under the project.” Convinced by this huge gain, he dedicated two thirds of an acre to hybrid onion in 2009, and the yield shot up by 2,000 kilograms. Today, the father of three is a proud owner of an eight-roomed decent timber house, dairy cattle and his children have been moved from public schools to a private academy for quality education. Coming from a laid-back peasantry economy in a semi-arid area, Nderitu now knows how to space seeds when planting and what varieties will fetch good returns.

“I have learnt how to identify the right fertilizer and the amount to apply, when to start weeding and how to cure the onions to prevent them from rotting after harvesting,” he added. From the nursery to maturation, onions take on average 120 days and a kilo middles at KSh.30 to KSh.50 (US$ 0.318-0.531) compared to four years ago when same could fetch only KSh.5 (US$ 0.053) a kilo. Nderitu, the chairman of Embaringo Commercial Village, a consortium of farmer groups within a given administrative village, said they have seen a revolution since 2008 with farmers moving from mainly subsistence production to commercial farming.

Socio-economic Transformations

“Many children are now able to go to school, good houses are coming up and the young are turning to farming instead of migrating to urban centers for the ever elusive promise of employment.” The project directly links farmers to traders, eliminating crafty middlemen who dominated sale and fleeced farmers. Nderitu said some middlemen are resorting to onion farming after seeing the possibility of lucrative returns and others play the role of bulking during low production within the villages. The appearance of shopping centers in the once poverty stricken sleepy village of Embaringo is a clear indication that the impact of such onion growing has significantly improved peoples’ purchasing powers in the area.

The Embaringo Commercial Village, Nderitu explained, coordinates production, sales, collective savings, looks into the welfare of farmers, as well as negotiates for bulk farm inputs at a much lower cost compared to individual purchases. Gerald Ngatia Watoro, Market and Trade Manager for Mount Kenya Region project that combines both Kieni West and East, said the pilot has made a huge impact. “The communities then had no organized mechanism in production and market development. We, therefore, decided to focus on hybrid red bulb onion having realized that it would not only lift many out of total penury but positively impact on development in this rural setting. On average production was low at about 1,500 kg per acre and the quality of the onions was poor,” Watoro explained. FCI launched the project with the involvement of the Ministry of Agriculture Officials, the local Provincial Administration and the farmers. “We wanted an all-inclusive process built on a consensus rather than a top-down approach. We wanted the people to own the concept for it to work.”

New Technologies

A key component of the discussions was technologies that could be adapted. These included using the right seeds, proper agronomical practices and good post-harvest technologies. The project started with administrative villages made up of 150-200 households and created groups called Commercial Group, which formed an umbrella consortium called Commercial Villages. These are members who have agreed to work together to form an economic bloc with common leadership. Farmers were trained in the science of small-scale commercial farming like good land tilling methods, nursery management and transplanting, weeding, use of herbicide and proper spraying methods and program, especially more effective and less costly preventive spraying.

It also includes lessons on natural resource management and soil fertility: how to keep soils fertile through practices like crop rotation, water management through harvesting of path and roadside water run-offs into their gardens, digging of trenches to conserve water in farms and to check soil erosion. They have been trained on record keeping, both at the individual farm level as well as for the village groups. Today, project participants release on average 10,000 kilograms of onions per acre and this fetches up to US$ 3,194. Farm inputs and overhead costs averages US$ 532 leaving a farmer with a profit of US$ 2,662 from an acre of hybrid onion. They plant seed verities like Red pinoy FI, Jamba FI, and Red star, marketed by different seed dealers.

Commercial Village Concept

Even more interesting about the project is the Commercial Village concept. It is an association of groups within a village known as Commercial Producer groups with various sub-committees and functions as a business hub. According to Watoro, the FCI market development strategy directly links farmers to traders and thus eliminates middlemen influence in the value chain. Farmers now have a growing database of onion traders in Nairobi, Mombasa, Karatina and Kisumu accessed easily from cell phones. Onion traders are also trained in cash flow management, business development plans, transportation, customer selection and formation of traders associations. “What we want is sustainability, which is only possible if all the components are working efficiently and making profits,” Watoro explained.

Kieni has largely been considered developmental backwater. Yet Watoro said banking institutions were moved in and marked an increase in number of those holding accounts. According Stanley Mwangi, FCI Strategy and Partnership Director, they have focused on giving farmers the right knowledge and changing the attitude of farmers to see farming as commercial venture. They seek to make farmers develop habits like making savings and linking them with research institutions. Their new frontier in extension services will be the ICT.


Publication date: 12/2/2011


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