Booming Onion Business in Kieni
On the slopes of the Aberdare Ranges, 47-year-old onion farmer Robert Mwangi levels the farm using fork jembes, helped by hired farmhands in readiness for planting onions.
At the neigbouring farms, the business is the same with workers busy in the farms; some are planting , others are harvesting and yet more others are weeding the crop.
This has been the business for the last ten years at Charity area in Kieni West district in Nyeri County. Farmers have been making booming businesses from onions.
These farmers say that it is easy to grow because it takes only four months to mature and the returns are attractive.
Many farmers did not grow the crop until discovery of the ‘taste of money' that came with it.
Mwangi has a household goods shop in Nairobi but he rarely visits it since it is no longer profitable like onion cultivation.
"Many people in town don't want to farm in shambas because they think this is hard work. Yes, you will have to sweat but the returns are not comparable to businesses in town," he says.
The project has resulted in wealth creation. Rapid development of the region has consequently been witnessed, which has seen a reduction in urban-rural migration. Young people who earned around KSH 25,000 in towns are coming back to grow onions.
Mwangi now concentrates on his four acre farm which he says brings profit of over KSH 0.5 million per year.
"I have been in this business for over six years and I am not regretting. I mean it is the best. It is the most profitable business I have ever made in my life. Many people have left big businesses in major towns like Nairobi and Mombasa to embark in farming," says the farmer.
Farmers have been abandoning growing other horticultural crops like carrots and cabbages to focus on this crop.
In areas like Charity, Endarasha, Watuka and Gitegi over KSH 0.5 million exchange hands daily, with tens of brokers trooping into the area with trucks to purchase the crop.
The villages have since been dubbed ‘commercial villages' owing to the brisk business brought on by onion cultivation in the area.
These commercial villages sell their onions in Karatina, Nyeri town, Marikiti in Nairobi, Eldoret, Mombasa, Thika and Nakuru.
Food security in the area has also been improved. Farmers can now afford to buy other food crops.
Living standards in the area are going up, which is borne out by the fact that these farmers are able to build better homes with permanent structures compared to other areas which do not grow the crop. The value of land is also going up as a result.
Mwangi is a father of three. He says that his two children have been educated to college level from onion cultivation and he is now educating his brother's son using the same money.
He grows a variety of onions on his farm using irrigation water from Ewaso Nyiro River. This includes the Jambar F1, Red Passion F1 and Red Pinoy.
Onions take between 90 and120 days to mature after transplanting. They stay for 45 days in the nursery.
These varieties are more disease tolerant compared to conventional varieties, which take six months to mature.
Most farmers in the area prefers the Red Passion variety, but are now having to also look at costlier alternatives.
Red Passion F1 seeds cost KSH 8, 000 per kilogram while the less labour-intensive Tropicana variety costs KSH 10, 000.
The Kieni West farmers prepare nurseries in August and September. By October the onions are transplanted to benefit from the rains.
Harvesting commences by the end of January, which is a huge advantage to farmers who sell onions during a period of shortage.
Due to a high onion demand, Mwangi has resorted to leasing land to maximize on production.
One of the biggest challenges facing these farmers is the poor state of the roads, which are impassable during the rainy season.
Some brokers also buy the onions at a throw away prices when the supply is high. Currently a kilogramme of onions goes for KSH 45. At this price, a quarter an acre piece of land makes KSH 200,000 in just four months. From February, the price of onions normally ranges from KSH 33 to KSH 45 per kilo.
Onions are attacked by such pests like white grabs. There are also diseases, which sometimes attack the crop like the Powdery Mildew and Down Mildew.
The cost of inputs is high. A 50kg bag of fertilizer goes for KSH 3,300. This makes the production cost to be very high according to Mwangi.
The farmer urges the Government to introduce subsided fertilizer like before where they used to buy the same bag at KSH 2,000.
"The biggest challenge of all here is market due to the corruption of brokers. Since it is the brokers who buy for us who later sells it in the city. The Government has been importing onions from Tanzania instead of purchasing locally. This leads to poor prices of our crop. I believe the country has a capability to produce enough onions for all Kenyans," he adds.
Mwangi is now planning to purchase a truck, which will help him market his own onions.
The truck will also help him in the transportation of farm inputs like manure and fertilizers.