Meet Wilson Mwangi. He is the owner of kwa Wambura farm in Bahati, Nakuru county.

His 15-acre farm is located about 10km from Nakuru Town, along the dusty Engashura–Mawanga Road, hosting millions of pyrethrum seedlings.

Mwangi, “I sell my seedlings to farmers in 18 counties who for years have been relying on splits to grow the crops. Seedlings are far much better in terms of quality than splits.”

“I saw this business opportunity and decided to seize it having worked in the pyrethrum industry for years,” says the chemist who worked at the defunct Pyrethrum Board of Kenya for nearly 20 years

He is keen to change the practice, noting that the ‘popular song’ of reviving the once lucrative sector has been going on for so long, with little being done about providing farmers with clean planting materials.

“I saw this business opportunity and decided to seize it having worked in the pyrethrum industry for years,” says the chemist who worked at the defunct Pyrethrum Board of Kenya for nearly 20 years.

“I grow seedlings for HighChem which they sell to their farmers as I also sell independently to other growers. Mine is the only certified propagation farm of pyrethrum seedlings in Nakuru and Nyandarua counties,” he adds.

HighChem is a private company that buys pyrethrum produce from farmers.

The farm has been certified and licensed by the Agriculture, Food and Fisheries Authority and Kenya Plantation Health Inspectorate Services.

Paul Wachira  an officer from HighChem explains noting that Propagation of the seedlings is labour intensive, the process starts with buying seeds at Sh2,400 a kilo and preparing his half-acre seedbed.

For the entire 15 acres, he uses 300kg of seeds as an acre takes 20kg.

Mwangi first tills the land, which is thereafter harrowed twice to soften the soil.

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The bed is then watered so that when herbicides used to prevent growth of weeds are applied, they can penetrate easily in the soil.

“The curbing of weeds is critical to remove any obstacle and dead material in the soil because pyrethrum seeds require a clean soil,” says Wachira.

Thereafter, he broadcasts the tiny seeds on the bed. Unlike seeds for other crops, those for pyrethrum are not covered with soil once broadcasted but mulched. Mwangi uses grass clippings and wheat straws to do the task.

“Mulching acts as a protective layer thus in case of heavy rains, it shields the seedlings from destruction.”
The heavy mulching is retained for 14 days to moderate the soil temperatures.

After two weeks, the mulch is thinned to allow direct sunlight reach the seeds to speed up germination and help in root growth.

“The seedbed should be irrigated every evening so that the seeds can have enough moisture to germinate,” he says.

After three months, the seedlings are ready for transplanting to the main field, which is prepared just as the seedbed.

“Pyrethrum seedlings are grown in rows, which are 30cm apart. The seedlings are planted in two by one feet hole and TSP fertiliser is applied before planting to help the crop develop strong roots.”

“The farm must be sprayed with herbicides soon after planting the seedlings to kill weeds,” he adds.

Pyrethrum seedlings, as those of any other crop, must be transplanted in the evening instead of morning to avoid wilting

Wachira, who started the business in 2014 on small-scale and increased the acreage to the current 15, says the farm produces about 13 million seedlings, with each going for Sh3 mainly bought by cooperative societies and county government.

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Mwangi notes one should spray liquid fertiliser rich in nitrogen, calcium and potassium in the soil to get healthy seedlings.

“Farmers are also advised to monitor crop wilting and uproot diseased plants. To counter frost, farmers should spray the seedlings with the relevant chemicals,” he says.

The seedlings are ready for sale after four months from the time of planting.

“I harvest between 500,000 and a million seedlings every month,” says Mwangi.

One of his biggest challenge is weeds, which compete for space with the seedlings. Then there are also soil-borne nematodes and white flies and aphids, which suck sap affecting the plant.

Nematodes can be controlled by use of crop rotation, but one should not rotate with potatoes or tomatoes as they share diseases.

“Researchers should provide us with herbicides which can selectively kill weeds and help the farmers reduce labour costs since sometimes I am forced to hire people uproot the weeds physically to avoid excess use of chemicals,” says Wachira.

The farmer says pyrethrum is a profitable crop since it matures in four months and a plant is harvested nine times in a year. One uproots the crop after three months.

There is hope, pyrethrum future is brighter especially now that farmers can readily get clean planting materials,” he says.

The farmer has worked in Rwanda and Tanzania, undertaking similar projects.

Drawing livelihood

Neighbouring Tanzania is now one of the leading producers of pyrethrum in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, with the country having overtaken Kenya after the sector collapsed.

Wachira, “I have grown the seedling in Tanzania and Rwanda, and as we speak today, Tanzania and Rwanda are controlling 80 and 60 per cent of the pyrethrum production in the world market while Kenya which was a giant is only having two per cent.”

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Prof Paul Kimurto is a a crop expert at Egerton University, “ Pyrethrum can alleviate poverty and create jobs if well-managed. The pyrethrum sub-sector can provide a livelihood to two to three million people with direct or indirect linkage to a processor like Pyrethrum Processing Company of Kenya, which alone can employ 3,000 people if utilised at its full capacity.”

The Professor adds with proper value addition, the sub-sector has the potential to increase export earnings, promote industrialisation and spur economic growth in Kenya.

Prof. Kemunto, “One of the major bottleneck is the provision of clean planting materials and once this is sorted out, the rest of the mitigations such as extension officers and funding will follow automatically. This country can bounce back to its former glory as the leading pyrethrum grower in the world.”

BY: Malachi Motano

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