Canken, growing fortunes for farmers in Rift Valley

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By Ann Ndung’u

Egonet Ne Leel translated to mean (A new dawn) is the brand name Canken International Limited uses to market its horticultural produce at the international arena. And indeed a new dawn it has been for farmers in the North Rift, South Rift and parts of Western Kenya regions, all thanks to Canken.

To many Kenyans as well as the international community if you mentioned Rift Valley, the thought of international athletes flying Kenya’s flag high on an international platform would almost automatically jump into the mind. But CanKen has sought to hoist the flag internationally in a totally different approach. You guessed it right, in horticulture.

That Rift Valley is synonymous with athletic champions is the very reason why Canken has a slogan engraved on their export cartons ‘From the Land of Athletic Champions’. Besides athletics, the region is also famed as Kenya’s bread basket owing to its contribution to the cereal market especially maize.

Based at the Eldoret International Airport, Canken promotes export of fresh fruits and vegetables to the international market through the airport.

Before 2007, Canken was a cargo logistics company that imported dry goods from across the world into the country. After delivery, the cargo planes used to return empty and an idea to rake in more revenue through vegetables and fruits exports cropped up. It was then that the company established a perishables department and went to look for market outside the country particularly the least tapped Middle East and started exporting mangoes and avocadoes. The market was so large that Canken management decided to expand to include vegetables.

The company’s  vegetable export  portfolio range from extra fine beans, fine beans, bobby beans, sugar snaps, snow peas, garden peas, baby corn, baby carrots, thin chillies, serano, fresno, bird’s eye, scotch bonnet ravaya and coloured capsicums. In addition its fruits include; passion, mangoes (apple, ngowe, kent, tommy atkins), avocados (fuerte, hass) and tree tomato (tamarillo).

As pioneers of horticulture farming in the expansive North and South Rift regions, Canken has to work round the clock to ensure farmers realize that horticulture is the answer to poverty eradication, food insecurity and increase household income.

According to Canken General Manager Mr. Dominic Biwott, the region which contributes insignificant revenue to the economy in terms of horticultural production has the potential to inject more than Kshs.100 billion to the country coffers owing to its favourable climatic conditions, rich fertile volcanic soils, large tracts of land and nearness to the market.

“The future of horticulture is in this region. We believe in this area because Eldoret International Airport is closer to Europe and Middle East in terms of geographical location than any other airport in Kenya making our prices competitive and attractive,” says Biwott.

Biwott says that though Canken prides itself for introducing horticulture in the region, the venture has not been a walk in the park.

For starters, changing the mindset of the local farmers who are inclined to maize production has been one of the biggest hurdles the company is still trying to overcome.

“Convincing farmers to move away from maize growing tradition and instead embrace horticulture has proved to be an uphill task. Despite most farmers having huge chunks of land, they commit a paltry portion of about 0.1 of an acre to horticulture,” says Mr. Biwott.

Secondly, at the time Canken introduced horticulture in the region they realized that the government extension

officers in the area were not conversant with relevant farming practices thus Canken could not rely on their services in helping farmers grow quality horticultural produce. Mr. Biwott says that Canken had to deploy agronomists to train the extension officers from Uasin Gishu, Nandi and Elgeiyo Marakwet counties.

“When we introduced horticulture in this area we realized that the extension officers were not well-versed with the new products and we had to invest in training them as a long term strategy of helping farmers,” he says.

Lastly, high cost of farm inputs such as fertilizers, quality seeds and irrigation equipments was another big challenge for most farmers.  This was cited as the reason why they invest in small portions of land.

According to John Kemboi, a Canken agronomist tasked to oversee technical welfare in Uasin Gishu County, though farmers are slowly embracing horticulture, they find it costly due to the ever rising cost of inputs and the time it demands to monitor the crops.

And having set a target of achieving 40 tonnes of produce for export weekly, Canken had to engage more than 200 small-scale farmers to satisfy the demand.

In a major drive to change the farmers’ mindset, Canken organized 30 field days in 2008 in the three regions and two major field days at the airport to sensitize and recruit farmers on horticulture farming. This exercise cost the company a total of Kshs.11 million in trainings and capacity building drives for both farmers and extension officers.

By the end of 2008, Canken’s efforts bore fruits as they managed to get 226 tonnes of horticultural exports from the North Rift alone. In that year Canken recruited over 3,000 farmers but Mr. Biwott says they had to cut down on number in 2009 as one of the strategies of enhancing quality produce.

“In 2009 we decided to change the strategy to enhance quality through vigorous trainings because we had a real problem in trying to convince farmers to embrace this new venture. The beauty about our 2009 initiative was that the volumes shot-up to 327 tonnes from the North Rift,” he adds.

In 2010, heavy rains pounded the region and saw the volumes drop to 233 tonnes. The rains which were accompanied by hailstones destroyed a lot of crops around Wareng District in the North Rift. Mr. Biwott says that some farms were literally swept away by the floods. “That year, we lost over 90 tonnes to the heavy rains,” he adds.

In 2011, the company’s export volumes shot-up again to 468 tonnes, the increased volumes were credited to vigorous trainings and sensitization.

After experiencing all these challenges, Canken decided to bring on board development partners to help the farmers nurture horticulture crops which in the long run are expected to drive the economy of the region in a big way. The partners include the Kenya Horticulture Competitiveness Project (KHCP), Amiran Kenya, Chase Bank, AON Minet Insurance Brokers Ltd and KickStart International Inc.

In conjunction with KHCP, Canken is planning to establish 75 demonstration plots to be set up in nine zones. These zones are divided into schemes and distributed in three Nandi, Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia counties.  These schemes include Tinderet, Kaptume, Kapsabet, Turbo, Baarini, Tarakwa Burnt Forest, Moi’s Bridge, Saboti and Matunda.

In this partnership KHCP injected Kshs.30 million while Canken allocated Kshs.65 million to cover a period of three years. This money will be used to set up the demonstration plots which will be fully installed with dams to harvest rainwater and train farmers on improved farming methods.

On the other hand, Amiran Kenya has been contracted by Canken to supply irrigation equipments to its farmers. Amiran is then paid through Chase Bank and the money is deducted from the farmer’s proceeds.

For instance, a drip kit to irrigate a quarter of an acre piece of land costs Sh.45, 000, an amount which most farmers find difficult to raise in lump-sum. Through Canken farmers apply for these kits from Amiran Kenya after which a certain percentage of their proceeds are paid directly to Amiran Kenya via Chase Bank in each given season.

The company is also in talks with Bayer CropSciences to develop what Mr. Biwott describes as an ambitious spray programme. The programme which he says will roll out in the next two months will involve a spray team for each of the nine schemes. In this partnership, Bayer Cropsciences will supply chemicals and Canken will deduct payments from the farmer’s income and pay it directly to Bayer.

Canken has also partnered with KickStart International Inc. to help farmers’ access low cost water pumping machines for their farms. Like for other partners, KickStart supplies the pumping machines to the farmers and Canken pays by deducting farmers returns.

AON Minet Insurance Brokers Ltd and Canken are also working together to formulate an insurance package meant to cushion farmers against weather related challenges such as floods and drought.

Nimrod Mengich, a young farmer in Kipsinende in Uasin Gishu County is a beneficiary of Canken’s ambitious partnership with these organizations.  For instance he says the partnership between Canken and KHCP has helped him put up drip irrigation on a quarter acre piece of land for demonstration purposes.

He produces French beans, baby corns, snow peas and sugar snaps on a two-acre piece of land through contract farming arrangement with Canken in which he delivers all the horticulture produce to the company.

“I have entered into a contract farming agreement with Canken and from my small portion of land I get high returns,” says Mengich.

For instance, he farms French beans on one acre piece of land under drip irrigation. According to him, a quarter piece of land requires about seven kilograms of seeds and out of this each kilogram produces between 500 and 700kgs of French beans.

Since Canken buy the produce directly from the farmers at a fixed price, a kilogram of harvested French beans will fetch Kshs.50. If you multiply 500 kilogrammes by the 7 kilogrammes you planted you get 3,500 kilogrammes. To get the total number of kilogrammes for one acre piece of land you multiply the 3,500 kgs from the quarter piece of land by four to get 14,000 kilogrammes. In a good harvest one acre has the potential to give the farmer about Kshs.700,000.

Out of this, Mengich says the expenses to produce one acre of French beans cannot exceed Kshs.200,000 which leaves the farmer with a cool Kshs. 500,000 profit.

He acknowledges the help Canken has accorded him saying there is no comparison between what he used to gain as a broker and what he gets now from horticulture farming.

Besides Canken helping him to access farm machineries and farming techniques, they also provide him with an agronomist who visits his farm on a weekly basis. He now plans to expand his horticulture produce to 10 acres starting next year.

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