A local farmer takes care of her Chinese cabbage crop in central Kenya (Charles Njeru)
John Kamau, 39, is a successful entrepreneur from central Kenya. Recently, while looking for new business ventures, he turned his hand to commercial farming, with a specific focus on cultivating Chinese crops.
The venture has literally harvested handsome financial returns. Kamau is among several Kenyan farmers that are now growing different varieties of Chinese crops and exporting the final product to destinations such as Europe.
Peter Munya, Cabinet Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives of Kenya, confirmed that Kenyan farmers are buying crops seeds from China and making huge profits on the final product.
"Based on several bilateral agreements we have with China, this form of trade is viable. It is not only creating income for farmers, but also creating both direct and indirect jobs. About 10,000 jobs are being generated each year from such agricultural initiatives," said Munya.
Kenyan farmers usually import the seeds of different Chinese crops which do well in Kenyan soil.
"While importing the seeds is entirely legal, one still needs a phytosanitary certificate from the agriculture authority of the importing country. The certificate proves that the seeds are not invasive species and that they do not spread pests and diseases," said Munya.
According to Munya, farmers first have to show that they do not plan to sell the seeds to another country, but they are, however, allowed to export the fully grown produce of their own volition.
"I am making very good profit and I can easily pay [my] bills with no struggle. I do pay school tuition for my three children each school term of about 90,000 shillings ($900) combined by selling the crops.
Kamau said he mainly cultivates cabbages, but on some of his subsidiary farms, he grows tomatoes and barley. "It [brings in] good money," he said.
The number of people who do seed business with China continues to grow, said Kamau. To coordinate the rapid rise in the sector, he and a group of farmers plan to set up a farmers' association.
The association will create equal rights and opportunities for people in the seed importing business.
"With a new association in place, we will form money lending institutions for farmers to expand their businesses even further. We will also be the ones to determine who gets import and export licenses for seeds and forward names for approval by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives," said Kamau.
The association will be formed within the next few months and one of other benefits will be to help farmers save and invest their income in many ways, including 10 percent annual dividends.
Kamau is one of the farmers who is also a middleman, buying the crops and selling them for a mark-up of more than 150 percent. He either sells the produce locally or exports them mostly to Western Europe and North America.
For example, a growing number of local farmers from central Kenya are making $15,000 to $40,000 per season depending on the crop type, said Kamau.
"My major [local] customers are Chinese restaurants, supermarkets and individual families. [Some] people [even] make an early order before the crops are harvested," he said.
According to Munya, more than 13 indigenous Chinese crops are being grown in different parts of the country, particularly in central Kenya where the climate is favorable for their cultivation.
The crops being grown include different hybrid maize (corn) varieties, sorghum, soybeans, tomato, barley and potatoes. All are Chinese varieties and grown mostly by small and medium-scale farmers.
David Muge is a seasoned farmer from central Kenya who has been growing indigenous Chinese crops, mostly exotic Chinese cabbage, for more than 10 years.
"I [once] saw a Chinese man grow the Napa Cabbage variety. Then, two years [later], after seeing [someone] purchase a kg of Napa cabbage for $6 at Nairobi's city park market, I decided to make a move. The [Napa] variety [sells for] twice the price of ordinary [local] cabbage," said Muge. Napa Cabbage, often called Chinese Cabbage, is a variety that normally grows into a large head of green leaves with a thick, pearly white midrib and has mild cabbage flavor. The cabbage can either be cooked as a soup, fried or used in salads.
Muge said he consulted with different agronomists and farmers who were already growing such cabbages to prepare adequately for production the following year.
Many farmers have followed Muge's example and managed to learn about different Chinese crop varieties, their conditions for growth, current market prices and any risks that may arise.
He also conducted a market survey and created contacts with potential buyers, especially vegetable vendors in Nairobi and outlets in European markets.
He said that there is a ready market for his produce.
In 2012, Muge prepared his 1.5 acres (0.61 hectares) plot of land to grow Napa cabbage, which grows best in well drained soils with low acidity of 6.5-7 PH.
Limuru, located in central Kenya, has a temperate climate. The region receives at least 1,200 mm of rain fall per year and has an average temperature of up to 15.3 degrees Celsius, making it a favorable region for this type of cabbage.
Munya confirms that the government is making breakthroughs with Chinese agriculture processing companies in reaching a deal on value addition.
"We are in talks with at least 15 Chinese agriculture processing companies to train Kenyan farmers on how to add value to their agricultural produce. It is a good move as it will increase their income further," said Munya.
He said discussions are in advanced stages to give local small scale farmers contract farming opportunities, and with Chinese crops being farmed in Kenya, there is also the need for the agriculture companies to offer contract farming with a special focus on value addition.
Gao Wei, Managing Director of Afropeak Expo, said his company plans to contract at least 400 farmers within the next year.
"We want to target as many as 400 farmers once we set up an industrial park in central Nairobi within the next year. There are lots of opportunities in agriculture processing," said Gao.
Experts say that the growth of Chinese crops are popular and farmers like the hybrid seeds.
"Chinese seeds are of very good quality and can compete in the market as equally as local seeds. Farmers using Chinese seeds are making a good profit, that's for sure," said Rikki Agudah, Chairman of the Society for Crop Agribusiness Advisors of Kenya.
He added that the growth in the popularity of Chinese seeds in the country will double in the next few years as growth in Chinese local businesses continues.
"Growth in the number of Chinese tourists means more Chinese restaurants and hotels. It also means more local Chinese supermarkets and other business outlets," said Agudah.
Reporting from Kenya
(Printed Edition Title: Seeds of Success)
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