A growing European appetite for chives, a herb that belongs to the onion family, has opened a window of opportunity for Kenyan farmers. rescuscitating a crop that made farmers rich overnight in the 1980's.
Back then, farmers invested heavily in the herb to supply Indian companies, but the closure of some of those industries saw farmers with nowhere else to sell the herb. However, now the general demand for chives is climbing rapidly.
The demand in Europe has climbed by an average 6 to 8 per cent a year since 2002, making it the favourite across the entire basket of herbs, which includes parsley, basil, rocket, and coriander, and now seeing farmers from Eastern and Western Province planting the herb as agents pitch tent to cash in on this demand.
Ayub Kithe from Kieni said that he only initially planted a small amount of chives, but the returns from the first batch he exported convinced him to now go full throttle into chive farming. “ I was among the 30 farmers from Eastern province who were the pioneers in the export, when an exporting company convinced us to invest in the herb since there was ready market for it. They bought a kilo of the herb at Sh350,” he said. Which was a far better price than he is currently getting for any other crop.
Cretonise Ltd, a Canadian horticultural company involved in the export of chives said the potential for Kenyan farmers to cash in on the herb is immense, but stiff competition from West African farmers was something they were grappling with. “Farming there has been fully entrenched and the market there is solidified because they have been doing this for a long time. But the demand from Europe has convinced us to look East which is why we came to Kenya. The pay at the moment is an incentive, which we hope will draw more farmers into this,” said Joram Antos a project manager with Cretonise. Already the firm has some 500 farmers growing the herb in both Central and Eastern Kenya.
A viable chive project requires at least 4 hectares of greenhouse tunnels, which have the capacity to produce 180-200 tonnes of chives per season. Each tunnel is normally 850 sqm, but one can use smaller tunnels. The growing season for chives is 7 to 8 months, depending on the climatic conditions, after which the land can be rotated with other crops, providing farmers with additional income. Chives are perennial in the garden and grow approximately 12 inches (30 cm) tall. They are extremely easy to grow, are drought tolerant, rarely suffer from disease or pest problems, and don't require fertiliser, but do need at least five to eight hours of sunlight a day, and well-drained, organic, fertile soil.
Chives can also tend to get overcrowded so they need digging and dividing every three to four years.
According to Hezzy Lala, an agronomist, chives planted between rows of peas or tomatoes also work to control the incidence of aphids, which are a major problem for tomatoes.
Chives are grown for their leaves, which are used to provide a mild onion-like flavour to culinary dishes. The flowers are sometimes also used to garnish dishes, with the stems also often used semi-decoratively, for tying up small bundles of vegetables for appetisers. Chives are rich in vitamins A and C, potassium, and calcium, and their violet flowers are also often used in ornamental dry bouquets.
Romanian Gypsies have also long used chives in fortune telling, and it is widely believed that bunches of dried chives hung around a house will ward off disease and evil.
The herb can be found fresh at most markets year-round. They can also be dry-frozen without much impairment to the taste, giving home growers the opportunity to store large quantities harvested from their own gardens.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter