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Farmers in Njoro ditch tomato, cabbage farming for herbs

A rich and sweet cocktail of scents greets you at Sarah Nyambura’s herbal farm in Njoro Sub County in Nakuru. A range of herbal crops on a quarter acre farm in Mukunguru location, are arranged in orderly rows.

Initially, Nyambura says that she had tried their luck in cabbages and tomato farming, but as she would soon discover, the crops were not only labour-intensive, but also had low income particularly when they were hit by a glut in markets.

From a quarter an acre of cabbages, she would make around Sh20,000 in three months, while she makes more than double the amount from mint on a similar size of land in two weeks.

Her farm teems with medicinal and culinary herbs which include thyme, Chia, Rosemary, Basil, mints, Sage, Marjoram, Gooseberry and Oregano.

She states most of the herbs are used to dress fish, meat and poultry in fresh or dry form in tourist hotels. According to her, prices of herbs vary from Sh220 to Sh 800 a kilo.

But Nyambura, who is rather new in the herbs farming agribusiness, says she wishes to learn more about this venture and concentrate on the export market alone.

This way, she says, she will not only earn more but also employ more than the current three people who work in her farm.

“Initially, I grew the herbs for home consumption. I used to sell them to my neighbours who would use them to spice and dress foodstuffs such as rice, fish, stews, chicken and tea,” she says. It was not until 2018 that she started commercial farming.

That time, she met officials from Virtuous Women and Youth Horticulture Campaign (VWYHC), an organization that empowers women and youth on commercial herb farming.

On the day of the interview, the farmer was in the company of Irene Muchimba and Sheila Khai, founder and Director Virtuous Women and Youth Horticulture Campaign respectively.

Whenever one needs help with planting, harvesting, marketing among other activities in farms, the organization steps in.

Nyambura says herbs are easy to manage. Most of them mature between three to five months, and thereafter continuous harvesting after one or two weeks.

Ms Muchimba, a nutritionist observes that herb farming is a venture that is yet to be exploited, yet it can create employment and income, especially for young people.

She says that the farming is simple, less capital and labour intensive and lucrative as long as the farmer is well prepared.

“In the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak across the world, demand for herbs, especially thyme, has been on the rise. Herbs are increasingly becoming popular as they provide natural ingredients needed in formulation of medication for diseases such as diabetes, cancer, hypertension among others.”

She states that currently, thyme is fetching about Sh800 per kilogramme in the international market, with the main market being within the European Union (EU) while a kilogramme of the other herbs fetches some 3.4 Euros (Sh394) in the export market.

Kenya’s herbal crops she says have a huge unmet demand in Russia, Italy, United Kingdom and Netherlands.

“Demand for our herbal crops peaks up in the European market from October to March during winter. We advise our farmers to increase their volumes during this period,” explains Ms Muchimba.

Ms Khai says their next big move will be investing in value addition. She adds that in value addition, the herbs can be used to manufacture juices and other final products. “Those who do value addition are raking in more money than those who sell in raw form,” She states.

She adds that members of Virtuous Women Horticulture Campaign are required to grow their herbs organically. “If you put chemical fertilizer, it interferes with the flavour and health benefits of the herbs. So we avoid it completely,” she explains.

She advises women and youth who want to venture into herbs farming to seek partnerships with the European Union and United National Industrial Development Organization (Unido) funded Market Access Upgrade Programme (MARKUP), which aims to promote markets for produce, including herbs, internationally.

The Sh473.9 million Market Access Upgrade Programme (MARKUP) is aimed at improving the competitiveness of small-scale farmers within 12 counties through the enhancement of quality and safety standards in a variety of crop value chains including herbs and spices.

National Project Coordinator for MARKUP Kenya Mr Maina Karuiru says the program is strengthening the extension services, promoting good agricultural practices and compliance requirements for better access to regional and international markets.

“Our prime target is to increase the quality and volume of the produce at the same time, as this will enhance the competitiveness of Kenyan herbs in regional markets, generate more foreign exchange and improve the socio-economic conditions of the farmers,” observes Mr Karuiru.

The National Project Coordinator affirms that MARKUP project will ensure that all the agricultural exports meet the market requirements for both the export and domestic markets and are safe for public consumption.

“Specific concerns include high levels of pesticide residues beyond set legal limits, poor hygiene and harmful organisms on produce. We are glad this is a sensitive area that MARKUP is addressing among herb farmers in Nakuru County,” states Karuiru.

Another herbal farmer, Joseph Mwangi notes that diversification from potatoes, tomatoes and cabbage farming to herbs was now guaranteeing farmers within the devolved unit a slice of the regional and international markets translating to increased incomes.

“We have witnessed skyrocketing demand for herbs in the global market. The venture opens new economic opportunities for women and youth. It is easier for this group to increase its income as herb farming requires little space, fewer inputs and is not labour intensive.

It dawned on me that production of potatoes and vegetables was expensive, especially with regard to inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. To cope, I had to change strategy. That is why I embraced herb farming,” says Mwangi.

UNIDO is also working with different stakeholders including the selected county governments, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS), the Horticultural Crops Directorate (HCD), the Kenyan Bureau of Standards (KEBS) and the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and fisheries.

by Anne Mwale/Dennis Rasto

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