Francis Kimingi has owned a mobile phone for more than a decade but has never had a reason to install or open any of popular social media accounts.
The father of three from Kinari, Kiambu County use to believe social media is a preserve of teenagers and educated people working in offices and living in urban areas. But he changed this perception last year. He downloaded, installed and opened a WhatsApp account.
He is a member of a farmers’ group that uses modern technology to foster their farming activities.
“It has made my work easier. I use the account to communicate with other farmers as well as seek the advice from agronomists,” says Mr Kimingi.
He is a member of Grafco Sacco, owned by small-scale farmers contracted to grow kales for export.
“I became aggressively active in the group in December when we planted the first crop. I am now reaping some good monthly returns. Social media helps me adhere to farming practices to meet set standards,” says Mr Kimingi as he scrolls through his WhatsApp pages.
In the group, the farmers exchange best farming practice ideas, consult on challenges and share success stories.
Adhering to the farming guidelines has guaranteed Mr Kimingi a Sh50,000 monthly income from his one-acre kales farm.
“I use it (WhatsApp) to consult other farmers and agricultural officers when not sure on what to do, when I need farm inputs or to inform other farmers on what I did to overome a challenge,” the farmer notes.
The group was in December contracted by Midlands Company, a local food processing company exporting kales and carrots to the US.
The buyer has mandatory agronomy conditions for the vegetables to qualify for the export market and timely information is critical for the farmers.
With limited resources to employ agricultural experts to monitor and mentor the over
5,000 contracted to growers, the company encouraged the farmers to form and join WhatsApp groups.
“The WhatsApp groups are our key exchange forums where we solve immediate issues, while our agronomists make random and planned visits to the farms and farmer groups,” says Ms Beatrice Maina, the lead agronomist in the export programme.
Like Mr Kimingi, other farmers who have embraced social media are laughing all the way to the bank. The farmer realised his first harvest three weeks ago, selling an average of three tonnes of kales every two weeks, earning him Sh25,000 per harvest.
By December, Mr Kimingi will have earned not less than Sh600,000 from the one-acre kales farm, compared to less than Sh100,000 he earned from the same piece of land, growing the same crop since 1988 when he ventured into farming.
“Midlands Company is offering Sh8.50 for every kilo of sukumawiki, it’s a guaranteed market. We previously sold a bag weighing 120kgs to brokers at Sh300,” he says.
Ms Maina says farmers’ failure to adhere to best farming practices is a major challenge affecting food production in Kenya. She urges growers to embrace modern communication technologies, which are cheap and reliable in circulating information and farming skills.
The farmers are contracted to grow the Thousand-Headed variety which is tolerant to bad weather, diseases and pests. “In the export market, growers must strictly adhere to the buyer instructions at the farm, and during processing, packaging, and transportation,” says Ms Maina.
With proper agronomy practices, the variety can be harvested for up to one year compared to others that last three to four months.
Besides land preparation, soil testing is mandatory to establish nutritional content that guides growers on the type of inputs to be applied.
During land preparation, Ms Maina says the farmer must ensure the soils are fine and smooth before digging the planting holes. Recommended spacing is 60 centimetres between rows and between the plants.
“Spacing helps in pest and disease control as there is a low rate of transmission. It gives the plant enough space for bigger leaves with minimal competition for nutrients,” explains Ms Maina.
A grower must do a daily pest and diseases inspection and report suspect cases to the agronomist.
“Kales mature very first and the first harvest comes a month after planting,” said the expert.
She recommends ten tonnes of manure per acre at planting, describing kale growing as less labour-intensive.