It’s a hot afternoon and Enterprise is touring Laikipia County to identify and learn about viable agribusiness for farmers in arid and semi arid areas.
We are driving from Nanyuki town heading to Ol Pejeta Conservancy. When we branch from the tarmack and follow a dusty murram feeder road, we find huge flat tracts of land on our right and left with empty grassy fields appearing as we keep moving.
As we head closer to the conservancy, a busy farm field welcomes us.
Two tractors can be seen through a billow of dust moving round a grassy farm while another one is busy baling hay neatly at one periphery of the shamba.
We meet the owner of the farm, Jane Mwangi who says she has been on a trial and error mission since 2016 and she now believes she has eventually found a way out.
The high school principal reveals that despite purchasing her four-acre piece of land in 2010, it took her five years to start developing it.
The mother of three is a Karatina resident but she has invested in a farm away from home, to expose herself to the opportunities found in semi arid areas.
At first she had no clue of the weather and climatic conditions of this leeward side of Mount Kenya that has black cotton soil punctuated by few particles of sand.
“This region is dry and farmers rely on seasonal rainfall to grow crops. At first I planted potatoes and beans but I regretted the decision because I harvested nothing though my crops seemed very promising at mid growth stage,” she says adding that all her crops dried up when rain failed.
But then she realised that her neighbours planted cattle feed grass while she was trying her luck in food crops. She hardly got time to seek advice given her busy schedule which inhibited her efforts to strike a balance between school and agribusiness.
“I was motivated to see them making money from hay. However, I made a mistake of planting African savanna red oat grass which again disappointed me. I missed my harvest target,” says Ms Mwangi who has been in the teaching profession for 25 years.
At last she surrendered and stopped using her own methods. This was the only way to reap from the farm she bought eight years ago and sought the advice of successful farmers.
She was advised to buy Boma variety of Rhodes grass seeds from the National Cereals and Produce Board which she sowed on the onset of the April rains.
Cattle feed expert Dr Jecinta Mwirigi says that Boma is a drought-tolerant perennial grass variety that grows up to 90cm high and is very good for hay production.
“It produces up to 300 hay bales per acre with cutting intervals of six to eight weeks and produces good quality hay at early flowering stage,” she says.
The variety reaches maturity for grazing at between four and six months after planting and its highest production is in the second year.
Ms Mwangi says she has since picked herself up and is projecting to sell her grass at between Sh120 and Sh160 per bale but as demand shoots up buyers will part with Sh300 for a bale of Rhodes hay.
With an affordable price for land in Laikipia, she admits that the perception that arid and semi-arid agribusiness is not viable is misleading, as the region has suitable climatic and soil conditions that favour cultivation of hay. However, costs start creeping into the business during the harvesting season, threatening to cripple earnings.
A successful hay farmer who only identified himself as Mr Maina, says the investment is lucrative but one needs to mechanise farm activities and do it on large scale.
Tractor drivers are also benefiting from harvesting and baling of Rhodes grass on behalf of farmers for a fee, given that they get the machinery on a rent and lease basis from a local company. “We rent the machinery from Tinga, a project of farm equipment by Quipbank which also trains us on how to operate them,” says Peter Kariuki who is also a farmer.
The Laikipia County project manager, Mr Daniel Koome says that mechanisation helps cut input costs, a key strategy to attaining food security in Kenya, which is one of the government’s Big Four Agenda.
The company has grouped farmers in the region into 20 clubs of between 45 and 60 farmers each and helps them access affordable land preparation, tilling, planting and harvesting services while maximising on the economies of large scale.
“In a hay growing region like this, it’s very uneconomical to farm it on low acreage as input costs will always outweigh returns,” Mr Koome says.
“Our project of providing mechanisation also helps farmers reduce post harvest losses especially during harvesting and baling.”