In Kyumbi, the township not far away from the Machakos junction on Mombasa-Nairobi highway, most residents are farmers.
Some grow sukuma wiki, maize and beans at the backyards while others keep chickens, goats and sheep in small pens behind their palatial homes.
Lilly Nduku Mwanzia’s backyard, however, stands out as it hosts arabicum, a popular summer flower that she exports directly to the Royal FloraHolland, the largest flower auction in the world located in The Netherlands.
Seeds of Gold team finds her supervising 16 workers that are expertly harvesting the beautiful bulbous blooms standing on two acres using sharp knives.
“I settled for arabicum after trying several other crops which did not do very well,” says Lilly as she paces between the rows of the beautiful flowers.
A flower lover, Lilly recalls that sometime in 2017, she was taken aback when she spotted a lone arabicum flower thriving in a distant relative’s compound in a neighbouring village.
When she asked how the flower she had mostly seen in expensive bouquets in big offices, hotels and city homes had found itself in the sleepy village, her audience shrugged their shoulders.
The lone flower was all the businesswoman required to convince herself that the region was suitable for growing flowers, a dream she worked on.
“The first crop gave us a net of Sh400,000. We are looking forward to earning twice that amount in the current harvest because the quality and output has improved,” says Lilly, revealing that she expects to recoup all her Sh2 million capital after one year of farming.
Arabicum flowers are propagated from bulbs, which are planted directly in the soil once they break dormancy and are ready for harvest after four months.
Once Lilly acquired enough bulbs from a supplier based in Thika a year ago, she sunk basins on her farm and off the mother of two joined the dozens of farmers growing arabicum in the country.
The flowers thrive in deep well-drained soils and in cool climate, according to agronomists who also recommend that the seedbeds should be slightly raised to allow good drainage.
Arabicum enterprises in the country are currently in Kirinyaga, Limuru, Nyeri, Nakuru, Thika, Kisii, Kericho, Bomet and along the Aberdare ranges where small-scale farmers have been raking millions of shillings annually from the sale of the flowers to export market.
Samuel Karanja, the managing director of Bullgate Company Limited that exports arabicum, advises that a square metre of seedbed should accommodate up to 50 flowers.
“The cost of transporting flowers depends on the thickness of their stems. To attain slender stems, and, therefore, reduce freight charges, farmers should cut the spacing between the flowers to 50 stems per square metre of seedbed,” Karanja explains.
Though the flowers should be watered regularly, agronomists discourage flooding the seedbed with water because this damages the bulbs and foments the eruption of bacterial diseases.
Harvesting of arabicum flowers is a labour intensive exercise, which does not end until the stems are graded through weeding out those attacked by pests and removing any withered bracts, cut into uniform sizes, tied together in bundles of 10, and packaged in specially designed cartons ready for transportation to the market.
At Lilly’s farm, harvesting of the flowers happens the same day they are to be transported to Holland to avoid loss of value through withering or disfiguration.
She cuts the flowers twice a week continuously for four to five weeks, after which she harvests and cures the bulbs for replanting and sells the excess ones. She harvests some 250,000 stems in total, each that she sells at between Sh5 and Sh7.
She has installed three modern beehives near the flower farm to reap from the nectar from the plants.
To take advantage of the global flower market, arabicum farmers are advised to harvest their produce between March and May, which is termed as the high season for flowers.
This period coincides with winter in Holland, which affects the local production of flowers. The global appetite for arabicum flowers shoots on Mother’s Day on May 12th when families across the world appreciate their mothers.
There are three ways of accessing the Holland flower market, according to Lilly. First through referral by other farmers who are already exporting flowers, second is referral by the Kenya Flower Council (KFC) and lastly, recommendation by the local Royal FloraHolland representatives.
She used the first one after getting licences and certification from Global GAP, Kenya Flower Council, Horticultural Crops Directorate and the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service.
To start exporting, farmers and traders should be certified by KFC as exporters of flowers and should have demonstrated that they have a ready client on the other end.
Those eyeing the European market should have their farms certified to meet global standards so that their products adhere to the strict quality standards demanded by the overseas markets.
Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service officials stationed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport inspect the flowers to ensure that only those that which meet quality standards leave the country.
Until 2017, Kenyan farmers were growing fresh produce and exporting them to the lucrative European Union (EU) market without much hindrance.
Gilbert Mutegi, 32, a bullet chilli grower was one of the farmers who enjoyed the benefits that came with the unhindered market for three years.
The EU, thereafter, imposed tough regulations on the produce from Kenya, especially that affected by the notorious False Codling Moth (FCM) pest.
“The regulations became a great hindrance to all farmers. None of us was spared as we were all compelled to grow the produce only in insect-proof shade nets and not open field as were initially doing,” recounts Mutegi, who initially worked in a vegetable exporting firm in Nairobi before he quit to farm.
The restrictions locked out the small-scale farmers who could not manage to install a greenhouse with shade nets, which costs up to Sh500,000.
The tough restrictions caught most farmers unawares and many pulled out of the business creating a huge gap.
“I did not let the opportunity slip out of my hand as there were only two exporters who had complied with the regulations enforced by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) as compared to the over 82 who were previously exporting. The two were enjoying monopoly,” Mutegi explains.
He followed in the footsteps of the two farmers, starting by leasing three greenhouses in Nakuru early last year.
He later leased four more on half-acre some five kilometres from Kikuyu Town as he resides in Nairobi.
“I was happy after I got the greenhouses since I was to comply with one of the most important rules, which was that bullet chilli must not be grown close to any other crop like maize and tomatoes to control pests. Most of the land I had got was near farmers growing the crops,” he says, adding he got capital from his savings.
Mutegi further hired qualified personnel who included an agronomist and a manager, all who had knowledge in the Kephis rules.
He installed shade nets on the greenhouse and adopted pest and disease management protocol for FCM.
“We ensured that all the soils in the greenhouses were pasteurised to a temperature that eliminated soil insects, weeds and majority of harmful plant bacteria and viruses. We then bought good quality seeds that were certified by Kephis,” he offers.
Paul Rangenga, an agronomist and a consultant with Gaute Fresh, says to keep the crop free of the pest, the greenhouse must not have any leakages and the farmer must use pheromone-based traps, which attract male moths.
CHECK PRESENCE OF ANY PESTS
“Each structure should be fitted with a double door that measures 1 by 1 metre to allow one to change their clothes and avoid carrying infections,” he says, adding the crop takes three months to mature.
Mutegi’s efforts soon paid off and his company, Gilgits Enterprises, became the sixth certified exporting firm of bullet chilli to the EU having been cleared by Kephis in April 2018.
Today, there are about 14 such exporters. “So far, none of my produce has been intercepted because I follow all the rules,” says Mutegi, who harvest at least 850kg from each of his greenhouses and exports the produce to Germany and UK.
The peak season, he notes, is between early September and May, with the price of the produce averaging Sh215 a kilo.
“You have to understand the seasons as you are competing with farmers from different countries. It is good to know their off-peak and peak seasons. You don’t want to grow the crop when its peak season because you will harvest losses,” he offers.
During harvesting, he notes, a quality controller should be present.
“Workers should not have long nails to avoid scratching the produce and they should harvest using a knife as they check presence of any pest. They should cover their hair, have a dust coat, clean their hands, put on closed rubber shoes and once packed, the produce should be transported in a covered van with a cooler,” says Rangenga.
The bullet chilli should have stalks to give the produce a long shelf-life. The produce should be 8cm long and green in colour, not yellow or red.
“When packaging the produce, chilli from greenhouse A should not be mixed with that from B for traceability purposes.”
According to Mutegi, farming in greenhouses has helped him cut costs. “I save up to Sh54,000 since there is minimal weeding and low use of chemicals. I have also managed to save on the cost of installing a greenhouse since I leased from those that had already installed.”
Though one can farm large volumes in an open field, the produce is continuously affected by sunbirds and the quality goes down leading to reject of up to 200kg in a single harvest.
“In a greenhouse or shade net, one harvests continuously for one year,” says Mutegi, noting of his biggest challenge is getting workers who really understand the export standards.