Farmers in Kirinyaga find fortunes in tissue culture banana farming
Caroline Wangeci Muhia, has been farming since she got married in 1975, at her husband’s home in Kirinyaga County. The mother of five girls has continued tilting the land in fact her hard knuckles and rough palms show how hard she has been working for many decades.
“I have been digging from the time I was married and it has enabled me to bring up and educate my five children. Today, my grandchildren are reaping the benefits of this farm.”
Together with her husband were growing mangoes, maize, macadamia and coffee on their five-acre farm for sale even though they both admit that the profitable returns of each crop varied from one season to another.
Paradigm shift: Since 2007 however, the couple says their farm fortunes began to change upon discovery of tissue culture bananas.
“At that time, coffee was not doing well and we had to rely on the factory gate price whose returns would not make up for the costs of maintaining the crop so we agreed to uproot most of the coffee and plant bananas instead.”
The crop (TC banana) for close to a decade now has created a stable monthly income, enabling them to undertake other family projects and sustain not only their five children but also their 10 grandchildren.
Although their children were raised mostly through the yields from coffee, the couple admits that it became difficult to maintain the cash crop as they could not buy new seeds or fertiliser with the returns.
Their land today is covered with banana stools and there are only about 200 stems of coffee from over 3,000 that once filled the farm. These have been left here for aesthetic value “so that when our peers go to pick their bonus from the factory my husband can put on some nice clothes and accompany them.”
Three of the five acres are under bananas. On a bad month she can harvest 500 kilos of bananas but the yield can go up to 2000 kilos on a good month. By selling the crop through an association of farmers, her bananas are able to fetch a fair deal at the market, with prices ranging from Sh12 per kilogramme to about Sh16 or Sh18 per kilogramme.
The neighbour Jacinta Mugo thought she had it all with her dairy cows and three acres of coffee coming from an area where coffee farming is an obvious income-generating venture for many families.
Things, however, changed when she went to the bank to receive her annual bonus but she got a rude shock — there was no money in her account.
“I resolved to quit coffee farming from then on, uprooted all the coffee plants and planted maize which I only harvested about 40kg. Maize is an unpredictable crop and I knew it would also disappoint me. So I took the advice from an agriculture expert to try tissue culture banana farming.”
Jacinta then started with 200 stools of the tissue-culture bananas and in the first harvest she got Sh4, 000 and after another month, got Sh8, 000. By then she had started getting excited about TC banana and planted more. When she got Sh20, 000, she knew it is something that could sustain her and I haven’t looked back since.”
TC bananas are very high- yielding and are not prone to diseases although it is the traditional variety that can give you some yield even when there is little water, explains Dr. Florence Wambugu CEO Africa harvest, the NGO that introduced the TC banana technology.
When the couple started cultivating bananas (Caroline and the husband), water was scarce in the area and the family had to find creative ways of sustaining the crop
“Before we got water from the irrigation scheme, we used to wait until evening when the water ministry officials had gone home for the day and would spend most of the night watering the bananas. Sometimes we would also do it on Saturdays and Sundays when they sure that the officers were not making their rounds.”
Under the irrigation scheme, Mrs Muhia and her neighbours are able to pump water from a nearby river for the crops but the growing number of users has started to deny those living farther away from the river of the commodity and is also beginning to pose a threat to her water-dependent crop.
“Banana is a woman’s crop. It provides food security to the household because you can either eat the bunches raw or cook them and you can still get good returns from the sale of the bunches so you really do not have to depend on your husband to buy the little things in your home.”
By Malachi Motano