Small growers play in the big league

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September 6, 2013. The number of small scale farmers embracing flower farming has steadily grown by over a hundred per cent in the last three years.

This is best exemplified by Wilmar Flowers, that has brought together some 3,000 smallholder growers  who are now exporting   into the European and US markets, the number having grown from 2,000 in 2011 to 4,000 in 2013 and counting.

And with climate changes adversely affecting Kenya’s traditional rivals Ecuador and Colombia in the flower sector, more farmers are set to join the gravy train, Wilmar Agro Ltd executive director Wilfred Kamami says, to cash in on the increasing demand and rising prices for outdoor varieties.

The development is music to the ears of the USAID funded Kenya HorticultureCompetitiveness Project (KHCP) that earmarked Wilmar as the vehicle to propel small farmers into global trade.

The farmers are also members of the Kenya Flower Council, and according to the CEO, Jane Ngige, embracing smallholders into the business is one of the greatest achievements in the sector.

The programme has seen an addition of over 1000 farmers each year, from 2000 farmers in 2011 to 3,000 farmers 2012. By mid-2013, the number had risen to over 4,000, from who which Mr Wilmar consolidates and  exports on their behalf.

The growth in the numbers has come in tandem with an increase in volumes from about 2 million to six million  stems a year with projections  this could hit  15 million by end of this year.

“The company used to sell six million stems in 2011. We are now at ten million stems aiming at 15 million, and we are geared to sell 20 Million stems in the coming year”, Mr Wilfred Kamami says.

Headquartered in Thika, Wilmar Flowers is a conglomerate of over 3,000  farmers who are in groups of 25-30 members. The Wilmar farmer of the year, Mr Kamami says, earned Ksh 1million in the last year.

He attributes the phenomenal growth to the KHCP support. “Farmers used to earn hundreds of shillings, but when USAID enables us access agronomists who showed them how, what and when to plant, their earnings shot up”.  The agronomists were part of the programme that saw membership grow from 1,500 to three thousand farmers.

Wilmar Flowers is a success story on what farmers, with the right guidance, can achieve. The company has farmer-groups supplying flowers from Eastern, Central, Rift Valley and Nyanza provinces.

The partnership with USAID has made it possible for the farmers to have 25 Agronomists, three cluster managers and one production manager, who are charged with maintaining quality flowers are grown by the farmers, with agronomists being at the top of the process, overseeing production in the farms.

Input by USAID into the sector has helped the small scale farmers expand their farms from 70 metres to 200 metre farms. “Through theKHCP, the farmers were able increase the number of products they were growing”, Kamama adds. “KilimoBiashara too helped in capacity building. Farmers now value their groups, having been helped visionalizewhere they are heading”.

“There is  an increasing demand  for our products, and we have to expand to meet it”, says Kamami, who  adds  the programme also helped visitation of markets and breeders in Holland. “USAID enabled us to visit the markets and breeders in Holland, and we were able to bring in new planting material such as Mursela, Goblin and Ornis.

Wilmar has managed to venture into the US market, and has an array of summer flowers for this niche.  “The Scabiosa, Rudbekia, Craspedia, Ernygium are some of the summer flowers that do well in the US market, alongside Saundersie, Ornis – Thyroisides and Ruscus”, expounds Kamami.

However, challenges for the farmers still exist. The flowers are grown in open fields, and without irrigation water for most farmers, rain patterns determine what farmer’s harvest. Kamami also points out at the high interest rates banks charge for loans, which are beyond many farmers, as another impediment toward growth.

“If farmers can be helped to harness surface runoff water and be able to enlarge their farms, increase in earning would follow”, he says, before touching on another sore issue “there is no flower development fund, despite flowers earning this country billions of shillings in foreign exchange. Whether one is growing tea or coffee, we are all farmers. Let us be treated the same .

By Mutuiri Gitonga