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The making of Cyrus Nyakundi banana republic

This exercise was supported by USAID through the Kenya Agricultural Value Chains Enterprises under the Feed the Future programme

November 12, 2017, Nairobi, Kenya. On the streets of the bustling Kisii town Cyrus Nyakundi can easily pass for an ordinary hustler. He is the proprietor of Agroplant Technologies, the only tissue culture lab in the Nyanza and South Rift region propagating a wide range of fruits key among his products being clean banana seedlings, backed by a nursery, a block of mother plants and a commercial banana farm. In other words Nyakundi is many things; a technologist, a nursery operator and a farmer all rolled into one, and soon he will add another feather to his cap when he unveils a ripening chamber.

Nyakundi’s story is hard to start telling. Does one start with his venturing into agribusiness as a ten year- old class four boy in Kisii, his serving the who is who in Kenya with planting materials as a young agromist with Nairobi-based Genetics Technologies or setting up a state of the art TC lab in Kisii that has produced millions of banana seedlings and going strong?

Let’s start with “Nyakundi little famer” to satisfy curiosity. Nyakundi grew up in a farm under a hardworking mother who encouraged her children to grow crops which she sold in the local market together with her own produce. He grew onions and sweet bananas. She was always transparent with proceeds, disclosed how much she sold and gave them pocket money from the earnings, always reminding the children it was their money. As he progressed in life Nyakundi knew there was money in farming, thanks to his mother.

It is therefore little wonder that in high school he took keen interest in biological sciences and ended up in Kabete, the University of Nairobi College of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences from where he graduated with a BSc Agriculture and became an extension officer with the Ministry of Agriculture. He worked in Meru and Kirinyaga before joining Genetic Technologies International Ltd (GT) where he was exposed to grafting young plants. He developed a passion for the science and rose to the position of chief grafter.

It was while here that the work of his hands provided seedlings to big shots in Kenya politics and business among them retired President Mwai Kibaki and former powerful Attorney General Charles Njonjo. He realized that contrary to conventional attitude, farming is loved by the high and the mighty. He wanted to find out what the rich were doing with the large amounts of seedlings they purchased and established they owned acres of commercial farms. They planted in his young mind the desire to go into serious farming.

While working at GT, he started a small nursery back home specializing in TC banana seedlings and introduced his neighbours to the new technology. He would buy seedlings from his employer in disguise as a customer and resell to the neighbours. He realized many farmers wanted to grow but there were no seedlings. He approached the Kisii Agriculture Training Centre to house his pant factory and the institution agreed.

Having been certified by Kephis and the Horticulture Crops Development Authority as a nursery operator, and with rising demand for seedlings, Nyakundi became a sought after supplier.

In 2010, HCDA approached the Kisii Agriculture Training Centre looking for a private nursery to partner with in production of TC banana seedlings. Nyakundi was already doing a perfect job and the authority immediately picked him. He got a net, tank and drip tubes and an order to produce 100,000 seedlings. From then HCDA started inviting him for industry meetings and it was during one of the meetings he met the predecessor of USAID Kaves, the Kenya Horticulture Development Programme ( KHCP) and Africa Harvest. He was invited to a meeting in Nairobi where he heard there was a challenge in meeting the demand for seedlings. He thought of starting another nursery.

His breakthrough came in 2014 when the County government of Kisii moved around looking for seedlings and landed at Agroplant Technology. Nyakundi sold 400,000 plantlets .A year later, the government, seeking to encourage farmers to increase banana planting introduced buy one get one and Nyakundi sold a million seedlings. This exercise was supported by USAID through the Kenya Agricultural Value Chains Enterprises under the Feed the Future programme. He started thinking of starting a TC lab, encouraged by the earnings from the deal and rising demand for seedlings.

Let’s go back to where we found Nyakundi. A few kilometers from Kisii town at his nursery, a modern structure by any standards. Covered under the shade net are banana, avocado, mango, passion, pawpaw, oranges, lemon and lime seedlings.

Our interest here is bananas on the eve of the USAID Kaves banana conference being held in Kisii, the most known banana producing country although it has since been overtaken by Meru in volumes. Nyakundi hardens TC lab tubers in preparation for transplanting. He explains he has a mother block where he harvests the tissues for culturing true to type clean seedlings. We get into the lab, where he shows us the latest technology machine, assuring us you can’t find the model anywhere else in Kenya. Inside closed small transparent bottles are thousands of developing seedlings awaiting to be taken outside for hardening.

Soon he started selling seedlings to other counties – Taita Taveta, Migori, Nyanza, Uasin Gishu. He tells us Kephis visits the lab monthly to ascertain the seedlings are true to type and are disease free as well as resistant to pests and diseases. What is in the nursery must match the mother plant. TC production increases multiplication by 37 % in addition to availing disease-free high yielding plants. This explains why banana production has shot up more than any other crop.

Bananas are best examples of adoption of technology by smallholder farmers, says Kaves Chief of Party Steve New.
Nyakundi’s eight year old twins are following in his footsteps. On weekends they visit the nursery where they plant their own crops and looking at the kids one can’t help admiring the future farmers.
Nyakundi is earning Ksh 13 million annually from bananas and is in the process of setting up a ripening chamber to add value to his harvest. He hopes to double income from the investment since ripe fruits fetch more.

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