Four years ago, an acre of land in semi-arid Kieni West District in Nyeri cost Sh70,000. Today, an acre costs Sh250,000 to Sh350,000. The surge in land value has been caused by the financial windfall hybrid onion farming has brought to farmers.
“This place was shunned and poverty stricken six years ago,” said Steven Wachira, one of the farmers benefiting financially from farming the hybrid onions. That’s why Farm Concern chose to initiate onion hybrid farming there. “Kieni had been left behind in development compared to other central province regions,” said Gerald Watoro, a credit officer from Farm Concern, which launched the onion project in 2007.
For long farmers like Wachira grew open pollinated conventional onions breeds that at most guaranteed 2 to 3 tonnes per hectare. However, the initiative by Farm Concern, funded by Farm Africa, introduced high yielding, fast maturing, hybrid F1 onions that guaranteed yields of 8 to 12 tonnes a hectare. “Farmers are harvesting an average of 8 tonnes a hectare,” said Watoro.
To ensure success, Farm Concern encouraged farmers from over 4000 households to form groups known as ‘commercial villages’. The commercial villages of around 1000 farmers each gave them bargaining power when buying seeds and selling the onions. In one instance, one farmers’ group managed to secure a discount of Sh600 per tin of hybrid seeds, which normally retail at Sh3100 from the agrochemicals stores.
Farm Concern also invited firms such as Murphy Chemicals, FarmChem and Safari Seeds to provide inputs like high yield seeds and spraying chemicals and to train farmers in farm management skills such as weed control. Initially, where farmers had to travel to get farm inputs, the firms also began to bring the supplies directly to the farmers.
The new high yield varieties farmers adopted were F1 varieties that included Red Passion, Tropicana and Red Pinoy. They mature in 120 days after transplanting and following from 45 days in a nursery. Conventional varieties take six months to mature. The hybrids are also far more disease tolerant than conventional onion varieties.
The Kieni West farmers now begin preparing nurseries in August/September. By October the onions have been transplanted to benefit from the rains. By the end of January harvesting commences. The timing has been a huge marketing bonus, delivering onions to the market during a traditional period of shortage, when even the onions brought in from Tanzania are unavailable.
From February onwards, the prices per kilogram of onions range from Sh33 to Sh45. Yet before the farmers got into the commercial villages or were growing the hybrid onions the prices they were getting ranged from Sh3 to Sh10 a kilo, as they sold them individually. “Real change has happened there,” said Watoro.
The new local onion industry has also been supported with finance. A local savings and credit society (SACCO) has introduced a micro credit product to lend to farmers who need money before the onions mature. “It reduces temptation to sell before maturity”, when farmers get needs like school fees, said Watoro.
The Kieni West commercial villages are now selling their onions in Karatina, Nairobi, Eldoret, Mombasa Thika and Nakuru. Farm Concern organises forums where farmers can meet with traders from those regions.
The ripple effect of the hybrid onion farming at Kieni West has resulted in wealth and rapid development for the region and even a trend of urban to rural migration. “Young people who earned around Sh25,000 in towns are coming back to grow onions,” said Watoro.
Typically, 41-year-old Wachira has now managed to buy 3 acres of land and is educating his family of two, Kieni West land that a few years ago was shunned as non arable is now selling at speed. This month, Wachira witnessed local farmers scramble to buy a 10 acre plot in a day at a cost of Sh350,000 an acre.
Challenges now facing the onion farmers include scarcity of labour, with most of the young people who used to be idle now farming the onions themselves. Per day, Wachira pays his casuals from Sh250 to Sh300 to tend his onions. But shortages of labourers are now forcing farmers to invest in less labour intensive hybrids.
Most prefer the Red Passion variety, but are now having to also look at costlier alternatives. Red Passion costs Sh8000 a kilogram while the less labour-intensive Tropicana costs Sh10,000. “We are coming to depend on other F1 ones in market,” said Wachira.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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