When Ruth Kamau made her maiden tour of the outskirts of Ngoliba town, one of the agricultural nerve centers of Kiambu County, her brilliant idea as she planned to venture into agribusiness was to plant onions.
She had never farmed anything before, her experience was in real estate. This was two years ago. But as Ms Kamau slowly drove back home through the bushy paths of Ngoliba that sunny evening, still weighing in on the decision to plant onions in such a dry place, she stopped to chat with a man who was holding a red chilli. “These do very well here. They make good money in town too,” the man told her.
It turned out that the unsought-for insight was all the 33-year-old needed to make a final decision. And looking back, this is the best decision she made. Apart from the sprawling pineapple fields owned by Del-Monte on the Thika-Garissa highway, off Thika town, Ms Kamau’s expansive chilli farm is one of the few most spectacular views dotting one of the driest areas of Kiambu.
Do your homework After four years in real estate, she had saved Sh4 million to lease 12 acres of land in Ngoliba town where land is leased at Sh10,000 an acre a year. She also bought enough mulching paper for her first crop of demon chillies, pipes and pumps and Goodman’s’ Fresh Farm was poised to roll. “With these, the chillies have all it takes to thrive under this climate,” she says, motioning dark reels of mulching paper neatly stuck on knolls of soil on the chillies planted in straight lines.
She explains that the mulching paper, imported from China, ensures that water is not lost through evaporation. Additionally, it minimises the need for a lot of weeding as the paper prevents growth of grass around the plants. “They look like plastic bags but they are not. In fact, we dispose them off on the farm because they decompose easily,” she says.
She points to the countless opportunities in agriculture which she says are available to those ready to roll up their sleeves. “The problem is that young people these days don’t like getting dirty,” she says. “Even then, you must strategise well. First find a sure market for your produce even before you start thinking of where to get land.”
She explains that as part of the extensive research she carried out about chillies, just before she embarked on farming, she sought to find out who would buy them. “Not every customer who comes forth is guaranteed to honour their end of the deal. You must therefore do your homework on them very well,” she advises.
Goodman’s Fresh Farm is full of activity on Fridays, the harvesting day where more than 50 men plunge into picking green and red chillies which have taken three months to mature. Each piece of work, including harvesting, all the way to exportation is done in a day. “That is why I bring on board many workers,” Ms Kamau says.
The harvested green chillies are transported to a packing house in Nairobi where they are packed in carton boxes, weighed, labelled and taken to the airport. “I export every bit of my crop to a market where I know I wouldn’t be exploited,” Ms Kamau says. She says though she exports tonnes of chilli to Germany every week, she is yet to meet her customers’ demand and is looking to expand her production on a 100-acre farm she wants to buy in Naivasha. To keep diseases at bay Ms Kamau says she sells a kilo of the demon chillies at Sh170. She enjoys juicier profits when she plants bullet chillies, a species she rotates on the land with the demon chillies.
In a good week, she says each acre of land gives her up to three tonnes of chillies, and she gets Sh170,000 from each tonne. “I see it as my side hustle, which I have become more passionate about than my regular job,” she says. The journey of Goodman’s Fresh Farm has however not been easy.
She says making early morning tours to the farm from Nairobi to have regular hands-on-experience at least twice every week is not an easy task. “I have had enough share of trust issues and learnt the hard way that to succeed as a farmer, you can’t always trust people with your venture, regardless of who you bring on board. That is why I always create time to drive all the way here every week,” she says.
She also recounts a past aching experience when she was forced to uproot an entire 12 acres of chilli after the young plants suffered a severe bacterial infection. “I thought I had all the soil tests done until I figured out rather late that I had failed to do a pathology test on the soil,” she says adding that she has been forced to treat the seeds to improve their resistance to bacterial infection before she plants them.
She has a lean team of five permanent workers — a manager, an agronomist, a watchman and two workers. “I trust the manager and the agronomist. Being an entrepreneur, I leave the farming expertise to the two and only stick to what I know,” she says. She, however, recalls having had to deal with an unqualified agronomist who made her make losses. “I had not done enough background check on him but went ahead to pay him Sh6,000 per week without knowing that many farms he had previously inspected had collapsed.” The agronomist, according to Ms Kamau, would also collude with a local agrovet store to sell her fake chemicals and fertilizers at high prices. “It is the only agrovet store around here, only that it is stocked with fake farm chemicals that are sold to unsuspecting farmers,” she narrates.
According to Ms Kamau, there are very few chili farmers in that area and they all still rely on the rogue farm chemical store for their for their chemicals and fertilizers. “Most of them find it tedious to travel all the way to major stores,” she says. The virgin Ngoliba lands covered with wild bushes are also a nuisance to farmers as they are home to pests and other disease-causing organisms that easily cross over to nearby cultivated fields