There is an emerging trend in Kenya where some graduates are turning to agriculture to earn a living.
The post was simple and to the point: “Cucumber available (20-100 kilos); Red capsicum at Sh220 a kilo; Pork at Sh300, 650 kilos available; tomatoes available at Sh50 per kilo (120 kilos available, Eldoret); 1,000 all-male tilapia fingerlings available at Sh10 each (Maseno). Want nutritious feed for ua livestock? Get a hydroponic system at Sh95,000 (Zambezi). There is more at the Mkulima Young website.”
My curiosity aroused, I conducted an extended search on the site’s Facebook account, where one Boniface Mbosero had enquired: “Anyone selling geese around Nairobi?” and Mech Muchangi wanted red onions while Myra Michaels posed: “Who knows about silk worms?”
Such are the interactive queries and information from youthful graduates in Kenya, hungry for information on agricultural produce or equipment.
There is an emerging trend in Kenya where, following the realisation that white-collar jobs are elusive, some graduates are turning to agriculture to earn a living.
Just six months after it was unveiled, Mkulima Young’s Facebook account has more than 13,300 followers. And the number is rising by the day, slowly attracting traders in agricultural produce and farm implements.
Instructively, a survey by DN2 shows that the new graduates are not interested in growing the traditional crops or rearing the usual domestic animals. No.
They are targeting niche markets to start ventures whose produce moves quickly.
Farming has become cool, and despite their academic qualifications, they are not averse to soiling their hands to earn a living where their less creative contemporaries see no money.
“The perception that farmers have to dig using hoes and wearing overalls is misleading,” says Mary Ann Wairimu, a seedling farmer in Kiserian, Kajiado County.
DEFIED NOTION THAT FARMING IS OLD-FASHIONED
The Technical University of Kenya graduate has defied the notion among her friends that farming is an old-fashioned way of earning a living.
“I would be earning a Sh20,000 salary but I get more than Sh100,000 a month. Isn’t it worth the trouble?” she asks.
A journey into the world of the graduate farmers reveals a new attitude towards making ends meet, and defies the notion that there isn’t enough land for farming.
All the graduates do is lease even just a quarter of an acre or get a portion of their parents’ land.
And it is a wake-up call for the more than the 100,000 graduates who leave government colleges and universities every year that you don’t need a white-collar job to earn a decent living.
Notably, it is not only the jobless who are turning to farming. Take Wycliffe Fundi’s case, for instance.
The civil engineer juggles short contracts with construction companies with brief visits to his Kirata poultry farm in Embu County.
“I would be earning Sh70,000 a month if I stuck to that job only,” he says, “but I now rake in five times more from my poultry business, which I needed just Sh3,600 to start.”
Mary Makori’s story is only slightly different. The Daystar University graduate works for a church organisation but still converted her 100-by-150-metre plot in dry Ruai into a mixed farm, which brings in Sh300,000 a month.
A day for any of the youthful farmers is a busy one. A number of them spend considerable time on the Internet, reading about the animals they keep or the crops they grow.
Most have active Facebook accounts and websites and spend most mornings responding to queries from customers or fellow digital farmers.
Wairimu, for instance, carries her iPad while supervising her workers.
EFFECT OF LACK OF EXTENSION SERVICES
The gadget has enabled her to reach markets beyond Kenya and, on the day we visited her farm, she had just sent some seedlings to Kampala, Uganda. “(The tablet) is my most convenient marketing tool,” she says.
In western Kenya, John Odera is an active member of two farmers’ sites and keenly studies the trends in the prices of tomatoes and eggs, which his Maseno farm specialises in.
The business earns him about Sh130,000 a month, which he is using to pay for his masters degree course in environmental science at Maseno University.
Odera has a digital phone, which he uses to advertise his products. “We just post the photos, indicate the offer price, give the location and calls start coming in,” he says.
His modern phone helps him gather information about his crops, markets and farming trends.
Still, his experience makes us realise the effect of the lack of extension services.
Government statistics paint a grim picture of this crucial service.
With four million farmers, Kenya has only 5,600 extension officers, 1,600 of whom are in management positions, says Mary Kamau, the director of extension services in the Ministry of Agriculture.
“Only 4,000 officers are in active practice,” she adds. “And a good number of them are poorly facilitated to reach all areas under them.”
This means one extension officer serves 1,000 farmers, which is way above the 400 farmers recommended by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). “We urgently need another 8,000 officers to reach active farmers,” she says.
Education certainly offers these youthful farmers alternative ways to skin a cat. When they do not get jobs, they turn to farming and, thereby, create jobs for less educated youths.
When they do not get extension services, they turn to the Internet and radio for information.
When the market is limited, they post their products on the Internet for a wider reach. And when the seasons are bad for certain crops, they get alternatives.
A change of attitude and a little seed money could be the next big thing for jobless graduates.
Maryann Wairimu, 23, Kajiado County
Average monthly income: Sh80,000
Educational background: Bachelor’s degree in technology, Technical University of Kenya
Maryann started her Gad Eden Green House and Nursery in Kiserian after working for two years for a Sh18,000-a-month-salary.
The sassy, soft-spoken farmer is today contracted by farmers to grow seedlings.
Half of her father’s quarter-acre piece of land is taken up by her greenhouse, where she has a selection of horticultural seedlings such as traditional herbs and vegetables, capsicum, tomatoes, cabbages, spinach and cucumber.
An iPad in hand, she rarely goes for half an hour without receiving a call.
He age-mates are baffled that she spends so much time on the farm in this generally urban set- up, yet most of them are hunting for jobs in various industries. Three months ago, she could grow only 100,000 seedlings but her second eight-by-15-metre greenhouse has doubled this capacity.
“The right seeds contribute 60 per cent of a crop’s yield.” she says. “A farmer should be worried by the quality of seeds he or she has.” Now saving for a masters degree, Wairimu’s also offers farmers after-sales service.
“I sell seeds and train customers on how to take care of them. I consult with them via telephone,” she explains. For those far away, she sends the seeds via courier services.
Mary Gitau-Makori, 29, Nairobi County
Average monthly income: Sh300,000
Academic qualifications: Masters in Psychology, Daystar University
Fifty-two pigs, 50 rabbits, 200 road runners and two greenhouses.
That’s what Mary, who holds a first degree in Human Resources from the Methodist University, boasts on her Doben Resources Farm in dry Ruai on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Her venture is a remarkable, mixed-farming enterprise on a 150-by-100-metre plot. She bought it in 2009 and, in the last one year, it has been earning her and her new husband more than double what they earned as salaried employees.
Last year she sold 40 pigs at a go and earned a Sh200,000 profit.
She has four varieties of tomatoes, which earn her more than Sh90,000 in three months, in addition to the Sh130,000 she gets from capsicum and strawberries.
Her rabbits weigh between six and nine kilos; a mature one goes for Sh2,500. She now processes a blend of tomato and strawberry juice, which earns her a profit of at least Sh21,000 per month.
Her proximity to the city has made it hard to satisfy the demand. “New customers keep coming. I never have enough,” she says.
Wycliffe Fundi, 30s, Embu County
Estimated monthly income: Sh250,000
Academic qualifications: Civil Engineering graduate, Technical University of Kenya
Started with just Sh3,600 in 2008, Fundi’s Kirata Poultry farm in Kagare has grown to host 1,600 chicken, 80 per cent of which are broilers.
Apart from selling chicken, his hatchery can produce 2,000 chicks in a week or two. “I began with 30 chicks and today I have 1,600 chicken worth Sh960,000,” he says.
His two brooders hold 500 chicks at a time and, in addition. he has crossbred a variety of chicken, producing what he calls taste yangu (my taste) due to its special flavour.
Fundi recently opened an outlet at Mwea town in Kirinyaga County, where he slaughters at least 40 chicken daily.
A Facebook enthusiast, he sells most of his chicken via the medium. His wife, Anne Wawira, manages the farm when he occasionally lands consultancy jobs with local road construction firms.
“I would be earning Sh70,000 month. See where I am?” he challenges graduates who are still job-hunting.
Kenneth Kipkorir, 34, Uasin Gishu County
Average quarterly income: Sh700,000
Education background: Diplomas in Graphic Design and Interior Design
Kenneth almost died of alcoholism five years ago, but by the time he left Asumbi Rehabilitation Centre, he had decided to go back to the farm his parents had left to escape his nagging and wayward behaviour.
Today, Kenneth Kipkorir proudly manages his father’s land, where he rears dairy cattle, goats and chicken and grows a variety of horticultural crops.
Apart from 600 chicken, he has 3,000 runner bean plants from which he expects a 3,000kg harvest worth Sh900,000 in two months, yet it will not have cost him more than Sh200,000.
With a Sh36,000 monthly profit from his dairy cows and another Sh50,000 from maize, the graphic designer acknowledges that he had chosen the wrong career.
Kipkorir’s mixed farm has created four jobs for local youth, which has motivated him to work even harder. “I want to double production of each crop next year,” he says.
Martin Kiburi, 18, Nyeri County
Average monthly income: Sh40,000
Educational background: Student, Mt Kenya University
Even before he completes his first year at campus, Martin Kiburi is already earning more than a government-employed teacher.
After witnessing his father’s woes as a dairy farmer, he decided to add value to it.
After buying one cow from him on credit, he now makes yoghurt in his father’s home, which he sells at a milk bar in nearby Mukurwe-ini township.
Fresh milk sells at about Sh35 per litre, and he makes Sh50 per litre profit from the yoghurt. His grade cow produces 40-45 litres a day and he buys the rest from his father.
“I no longer worry about marketing my milk. He buys more than 150 litres from me every day,” says Kiburi’s father, Charles Njoroge.
Father and son enjoy a cordial business relationship. “We agreed that I would save for my university education. I paid my First Year fees for myself,” says Kiburi.
The food science and technology student is planning to set up a cheese manufacturing unit as well as start making ice cream by the end of next year. “I have already enjoyed the fruits of one cow. I can only add more,” he says.
Daniel Kimani, 28, Nyandarua County
Average monthly income: Sh250,000
Educational background: Degree in Fisheries, Moi University
Daniel Kimani’s farm in Kinja, Kinangop, occupies a quarter of an acre and has eight ponds, each with a five-metre diameter.
They hold 3,000 rainbow trout, which go for Sh800 per kilo.
He can rear up to 20,000 fingerlings, which he sells at Sh36 each. In an eight-month season, the ponds produce 750 kilos of fish, with a kilo going for Sh1,000, according to his latest sales figures from two months ago.
A few metres from the fish farm is Posterity Farm, where he practises aquaponics (method of growing crops and fish together). Here, he has a 30-by-7.5-metre greenhouse where he grows strawberries using the ammonia released by the fish.
The pond had 6,000 fingerlings and about 800 fully grown catfish as at last month.
The strawberries in the greenhouse are mounted on plastic towers filled with porous materials.
The pond water is pumped through the towers and is purified by the porous materials, leaving rich ammonia for use by the berries.
He produces 750 kilos of strawberries a month, and with a kilo going for Sh300, he earns Sh225,000 monthly.
Kimani (below left with the writer) holds a BSc in Fisheries from Moi University, and uses his skills to train fish farmers around the Mt Kenya region. “I spend a lot of time training people to start similar projects,” he says. “A candle loses nothing by lighting another.”
David Rotich, 31, Kericho County
Average monthly income: Sh60,000
Educational background: Diploma in Animal Health, American Breeders Association
Seedlings are David Rotich’s livelihood.
The father of two studied animal health but found crop health better paying after trying to grow quality seedlings.
He has created two jobs by using just a 15-by-8-metre parcel of his father’s land, where he has put up a greenhouse for seedlings.
He specialises in tomatoes, cabbage and capsicum. He set up the nursery only in March this year, and his first crop of 45,000 seedlings gave him a Sh25,000 profit after a month.
He expects to get 70,000 seedlings by the end of the year, and he projects a Sh180,000 profit. Capacity-building by the USAid-funded Kenya Horticultural Competitiveness Project has broadened his thinking.
“I am applying the best practices, guided by experts,” he says.
IF NOT ALREADY WITH US, PERILS OF DIGITAL FARMING
Selling farm produce via the Internet might sound hot, but risks abound. Seeking information from sites is also not the final answer.
Mr Joseph Macharia, the founder of Mkulima Young, a young farmers’ Internet hub, warns farmers against sending produce to customers before receiving money.
He also warns members not to send money before seeing the goods.
“So far we haven’t had any serious breach of contract, but the Internet has all manner of people,” he warns.
“We are strict with members and block those who steer from agribusiness queries. It is a delicate balancing act,” he adds.
An extension officer working at a university, Macharia profiles members and monitors their posts.
“We have created a platform to engage young farmers. We are creating a movement. The traffic on the sites can tell,” he says, adding that young people are eager to have someone show them how to make money, as well as see someone who is making some already.
“Every week we get a farmer who is doing exceptionally well and post his or her story as champion of the week,” he says.
When he began, he quickly learnt that market for produce bothered many farmers. “We created another platform, MkulimaSoko, where farmers place pictures of their produce for sale. They only need a phone to do this,” he explains.
The bond just got tighter. A month ago, the members formed their own savings and credit co-operative societies. “We realised that cases of funding would arise. It also strengthens relationships among farmers, suppliers and customers,” he explains.