About 10 workers on the farm in Kisaju, Kajiado County, sort out onions according to their sizes, placing the smaller ones on one side and the bigger ones on the other.
Looking on as the work continues is David Mbede, the owner of the vast farm that specialises on production of onions and French beans under irrigation.
Mbede, in his 40s, has turned the dry area into an oasis of food. The workers sort the onions, cutting off their leaves and extended roots as a three-wheeler vehicle (tuk-tuk) loaded with sacks of the produce exits the gate.
Mbede farms on the 23-acre arid land, 15 which are on drip irrigation where he cultivates the Neptune variety of onions, rotating with French beans.
He also grows watermelons, pepper, vegetables and maize in small quantities. Starting out in 2014, Mbede says he realised onions have a huge market in Nairobi, especially in January to February and May to June.
“My market research revealed the seasons. The produce fetches up to Sh80 per kilo, while other times they go for as low as Sh40,” he says, adding that his onion clientele is made up of traders who buy in bulk, hotels and various learning institutions in Kajiado and Nairobi.
Most of them book the produce while still on the farm due to the high demand during the two seasons.
“The buyer pays 50 per cent of the money and the rest upon harvesting. In case of damage to the crops or diseases, I refund the money but so far all has been well,” says Mbede, noting the business model enables him to farm more and be cautious so that nothing goes wrong.
For French beans, which are on high demand throughout the year, he exports through a company that buys them at Sh70 per kilo.
The farmer pumped into the business Sh2 million sinking the money in a borehole, erecting steel water towers and buying water tanks. Part of the money also went to the drip irrigation kits that he bought from Amiran Kenya.
USE OF TECHNOLOGY
It is a tall order to cultivate a large arid land, but Joram Nderitu, a drip irrigation expert from Amiran, says it is easily achievable.
“Use of technology is the best way to overcome the poor climate. Drip irrigation works well for such environments because it uses less water enhancing efficiency,” he says, adding the method of irrigation is also good for fertiliser application.
Nderitu notes that crop farming in arid areas starts with making the right choice of crops to cultivate.
Onions, according to him, thrive under drip irrigation in the drylands as their roots do not go deep in the soil, hence they are able to get the requisite water the drips provide.
To grow the onions, he first plants seeds in the beds, and transplants after 45 days onto the main farm where they mature in three months.
“I normally apply manure before tilling the land, and add fertiliser during cultivation. We don’t weed the crops manually but use herbicides to kill the unwanted plants,” says Mbede, who checks the pH levels of his soil every two years.
French beans, on the other hand, are labour-intensive. Export standards indicate they should not contain any chemical residues, necessitating manual weeding rather than use of herbicides.
He harvests at least 120 tonnes of onions and French beans every year. During the rotation, the French beans help in fixing nitrogen in the soils enriching it.
Carol Mutua from Egerton University’s Department of Crops, Horticulture and Soils also isolates leaf miners and onion fly/maggot as some of the pests farmers have to contend with.
Other diseases include downy mildew, purple blotch, onion smut, neck rot and white rot.