Simple Irrigation technology helping farmers grow more

Cheaper manual technologies are making it possible to grow fruits and vegetables in places previously seen as unsuitable for these farmers, who must only operate in months when rain is available. This pattern compromises food security for their families and livestock. “Availability of food, especially vegetables, is a challenge from December to March and around September.

Food prices skyrocket as little is produced on our farms during these periods,” said Mr Onesmus Kariuki, a farmer from Githagara Village in Murang’a County. He was speaking during an agribusiness exhibition held at Ihura Stadium in Murang’a.

Like Mr Kariuki, many farmers suffer from this scarcity-abundance farming cycle. “Even forages for livestock become scarce, adversely affecting milk production and the earning power of the rural populace,” said the retired veterinary officer, who is a dairy farmer. But now, the uptake of irrigation technologies by farmers is helping to avert the shortage of vegetables, fruits and livestock fodder for animals. Mr Japheth Waititu, the Kick- Start regional representative for Murang’a County, said: “Cheaper hand and leg-operated pumps are the way to go for farmers with less than two acres. They require no technical skills and are low in maintenance costs.”

KickStart is a non-profit organisation that provides low-cost technologies to entrepreneurs to establish profitable enterprises. The manual pumps known as Moneymaker have in the last couple of years greatly transformed smallholder farming, especially for horticultural crops such as cabbages, tomatoes and kales. Smallholder irrigation technologies like KickStart’s help to break the long dry spells and reduce the food insecurity experienced in many places. According to Mr Waititu, there are two types of Moneymaker pumps.

The hand-operated, working more like a bicycle pump, retails at Sh6,300 and comes with a 10-metre inlet pipe and 18-metre hose pipe to connect to a sprinkler. The 10-metre inlet pipe takes water from the source such as a well, dam or river. The bigger pump, costing Sh11,990, is operated by legs and comes with the same sizes of hose pipes. “The smaller pump can irrigate 1.25 acres with the bigger one capable of supplying water within two acres. We train farmers on the use and maintenance of the simple pumps.

Depending on usage, there is minimal maintenance cost and farmers are able to recoup their investment within the first six months,” Mr Waititu added. With these pumps, smallholders can irrigate and sell high value crops throughout the year. Water for domestic use and for livestock can also be pumped and later treated in the homestead.

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One person who has fully benefited from these pumps is retired teacher Wachira Njoori, a fruit farmer in Wangwaci Village of Sipili location in the dry Laikipia County. In the mid-90s, Njoori and other farmers in Sipili location invested in pumps, and he has used his to irrigate his three-acre orchard. Drawing water from a neighbouring wetland using the pump, he grows a variety of fruits, ranging from oranges, tangerines, paw paws, mangoes, fruit tomatoes, avocadoes, grape fruits and bananas. From his orchard set up over a decade ago, he sells 100kg of fruit weekly. At a rate of Sh20 per kilo, he has been making over Sh100,000 a year from fruits alone.

“If anyone tells me to go back to the classroom, I will protest. I am now my own boss and can support my retirement comfortably from fruit sales,” said the father of five grown-up children. The pump has also been able to support other enterprises on the farm. He has been able to raise 100 layers and 150 broilers. With water being a scarce commodity in this area, the pump has come in handy for the chicken venture. “The pump has been a major boost for the chicken enterprise,” he noted. With 90 eggs laid on a daily basis, he earns a monthly income of Sh18,900, at a price of Sh7 per egg. He has been supplying a Nyahururu-based tourist hotel with broilers, earning over Sh30,000.

Using ‘boda boda’ for irrigation

For James Wekesa, a motorcycle boda boda operator in Bungoma County in western Kenya, the prospect of his much-valued machine being used to irrigate vegetables offers a new economic opportunity. Motorcycle taxis have become a popular mode of transport across the East African region. In Kenya, over 1.5 million motorcycle taxis transport passengers and goods mainly on rural unpaved roads. But researchers and developers have in recent years been looking into ways of diversifying the use of these vehicles, into other economic activities beyond the transport business. Irrigation is one and now, a motor- cycle operated water pump has been developed.

It was a huge attraction to many vegetable farmers at the recently concluded Nairobi International Trade Fair. “With the accessibility of motorcycles to almost every household, their use in irrigation is good news for those with small farms,” said Mr Mwangi Mbuguiro, a director at Farm Link Africa, a Kenyan firm that has developed the pump.

The simple pump operated by a motorbike retails at Sh10,000 and another Sh5,000 will be needed to purchase the pipes. “With one litre of petrol, the pump can push 40,000 litres of water to a height of 50 metres. With a flow rate of 40 cubic metres and quick assembling, the pump can be installed on the motorcycle at night to operate as a sprinkler.

It can also be used to pull water from a well into a tank for use in drip irrigation,” Mr Mbuguiro, the man behind the innovation said. The pump can also be used to spray crops and livestock and clean carpets and for domestic use.

“We have had to pull water from shallow wells by hand to irrigate our plots, a very tiring task, which can easily be substituted by the motorcycle once the day’s transport business is over. It can also help to increase our vegetable farming to boost food security,” said Mr Wekesa at the Farm Link Africa stand.

Over 80 per cent of vegetables consumed in the country are produced by smallholder farmers, who have less than 1.5 acres of land. Irrigation has been critical in ensuring continuous supply of vegetables even in the dry season.

“More economical use of fuel com- pared to conventional diesel pumps, low maintenance costs and low labour requirement make it suitable for small- holder farmers. Part of the earnings from the boda boda operators can be invested in agriculture –spreading risks and improving the family’s food fortunes,” said Mr Mbuguiro.

Using a diesel-run water pump to draw water from River Sirimon, Susan Karungari, a smallholder vegetable farmer from Umande village, Laikipia East County, has had to grapple with the rising fuel prices. “While demand for kales, capsicum, tomatoes and dhania has been high for me to even meet half the orders, the fuel cost for pumping water for my drip irrigation has been the main challenge,” Mrs Karungari said in an earlier interview.

Fact File

  • Sh6,300 – Cost of small hand operated pump which comes with a 10-metre inlet pipe and 18-metre hose pipe to connect to a sprinkler. Can irrigate 1.25 acres.
  • Sh11,900 – Cost of the bigger pump operated by legs and comes with the same sizes of hose pipes.  It can irrigate 2 acres.
  • Sh100,000 – Amount of money one farmer earns annually from selling fruits alone grown using money maker irrigation.

“Drip farming is the way to go for smallholder farmers, especially those like us in arid and semi-arid areas. It is economical and labour-intensive, especially once the system is in place,” says Karungari, a mother of two and a member of Umande Rainwater Harvesting Project.

“A combination of the motorcycle- operated pump with drip irrigation will reduce the cost of production for smallholder farmers and boost production and profits,” Mr Mbuguiro explained to farmers.

With soil testing being a very important aspect in the success of crop production and resulting food security, BLGG Kenya is employing the latest technology in soil and compost analysis, which is known as Infrared Spectroscopy. IR-spectroscopy is a fast, simple and reliable technique, which avoids mistakes that can occur in the conventional wet chemical analysis due to human failure, says Ms Anja Weber of BLGG Kenya.

“IR-spectroscopy is routinely used in modern labs in the feed, food and pharmaceutical industries in Europe. It does not involve long processes or the use of chemicals and is, therefore, also cheap,” she says.

As such, it applies itself as the ideal method in analysing soil and composts for smallholder farmers, who need fast, cheap and accurate results to be able to make the right decisions, she adds. Analysing Kenyan soils has shown that one of the biggest problems is the lack of organic matter and Ms Weber says her company has undertaken extensive farmers’ training on soil fertility and compost making to improve the situation.

“BLGG Kenya does not want to give the farmer just the results of his or her soil’s analysis; it aims to give them the knowledge and tools to make informed decisions towards healthier soils and increased soil fertility,” she says.

“Use of compost is easy and cheap and helps to increase organic matter content and soil microbial life. The analysis of a farmer’s compost helps him or her to assess the quality of homemade fertiliser and the kind and amount needed for optimum crop yields is calculated based on the available compost,” she adds.  Farmers are also advised on how to make, use and apply compost to get the best results. A soil analysis costs Sh1,600, and compost, Sh1,450. “Soil and compost analysis together (combo price) Sh2,650,” she says.

How IR-Spectroscopy works

“The light our eyes see is only a small part of a broad spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. On the immediate high energy side of the visible spectrum lies the ultraviolet, and on the low energy side is the infrared,” Ms Weber says. Infrared spectroscopy exploits the fact that molecules absorb specific frequencies. The infrared spectrum of a sample is recorded by passing a beam of infrared light through the sample.  When the frequency of the IR is the same as the vibrational frequency of a bond, absorption occurs, she says, adding that examination of the transmitted light reveals how much energy was absorbed at each frequency and an absorbance spectrum is then generated. “Analysis of the position, shape and intensity of peaks in this spectrum reveals details about the molecular structure of the sample,” she says.” When a sample has been taken, either of soil or compost, it is dried for 24 hours in a special oven and then ground to a 1mm grain size. This sample is then split to get a sub-sample before being ground again to a fine powder.

“This is the sample that is tested in the spectrometer, “a small machine fitted with high precision mirrors that reflect the IR beams into the sample and back into a device that reads the absorption levels,” says Ms Weber The spectrum that is shown as a graph on a computer screen is then transferred to a reference database, which is able to interpret and translate the results.

How BLGG works in the field

According to Ms Weber, partners in the field visit your farm to take samples, which are then sealed in special bags and bar-coded to ensure correct identification. “Samples are then taken to a laboratory in Nairobi and analysed within two days.

A huge reference database in the Netherlands allows BLGG Kenya to give farm and crop specific recommendations based on the analysis of a farmer’s soil or compost,” she says. The results and fertilisation recommendations are then returned to the farmer by the sample taker. The farmer is given a chance to discuss any further questions or get advice. The availability of day-old chicks is an important factor in determining the success of poultry farming.  And regardless of the size of the enterprise, high chick quality is a necessity. However, for small-scale poultry farmers in Kenya, getting day-old chicks has been a major challenge. The major hatcheries are located around Nairobi. They include Kenchic, Muguku, Kenbrid, and Wachanga. Outside Nairobi, there is the Nakuru- based Rift Valley Hatcheries. “It takes more than six months to get chicks, as the demand is high. The wait frustrates many would-be chicken farmers, forcing them to abandon their plans or spend the money on other ventures,” says Kiambu poultry farmer John Kariuki.

Besides securing the chicks, the transportation of the day-olds from the hatcheries to the farm, a journey that sometimes takes a whole day, presents a huge challenge, with increased mortality. However, an innovator has developed a low cost, easy to manage incubator, suit- able for fewer eggs farmers may want to hatch.

“These incubators give farmers the freedom to choose when they want their eggs hatched and how many chicks to raise at any one time. They are also low on cost as some use biogas and sawdust as the main source of power,” says Mr Livingstone Waithaka, the Nyeri-based innovator. Made using plywood and lagging material, the incubators come in sizes, depending on the number of eggs they can hatch at a time.

They range from 100, 200, 300 to over 1,000 egg capacity. With digital technology, the conditions in the incubator can be indicated. Ideally, eggs are hatched after 21 days when maintained at 35 to 40 degrees Celsius and between 60 to 75 per cent relative humidity. Egg turning is vital, as it prevents chicks from sticking to the shells. “While electricity is the main source of power, biogas and sawdust are viable alter- natives for farmers off the national grid,” the youthful innovator explained to eager farmers attending an agricultural field day at Wambugu Farmers Training Centre in Nyeri County, central Kenya. Currently, only 15 per cent of households in the country have access to electricity although the Rural Electrification Programme has in the last 10 years been increasing access to electricity. “A farmer may decide to buy a cheaper one where egg turning is manual or may go for an automated incubator. Farmers may also buy a more expensive one, which is automated and has a biogas backup in case of power failure,” explained Mr Waithaka.

An incubator where eggs have to be turned manually costs Sh28,000, the one with automated egg turning, Sh35,000 and the fully automated with a power backup retails at Sh45,000. The cost of hatching is considerably low compared to the long wait for chicks from major hatcheries, transportation costs and risks.

“Within a three-week period, power costs would amount to Sh800 to Sh1,000, affordable to small-scale farmers. Enterprising farmers can also hatch from 1,000 to 5,000 eggs and sell to neighbours,” he said.

Demand for the 100 and 200-egg incubators has been rising as farmers come to learn of its huge benefits. “We make the incubators depending of a farmer’s needs. We are also looking at ways where banks can give loans to prospective poultry farmers.”

A farmer at Ondiri near Kikuyu, Mr James Gathogo, uses two such incubators to produce 400 day-old Kenbro chicks and sells them at Sh100 to fellow farmers. Kenbro is a hugely popular poultry breed developed and introduced into the Kenya market by Kenchic Limited. It is a dual-purpose breed that lays more eggs than indigenous chickens.

Having tried out crop farming with limited success, Mr Willy Kirwa finally decided that dairy farming using zero-grazing methods was the way to go. So successful has he been that his farm in Eldoret attracts visitors from as far as Mombasa, Muranga, Ukambani, Kisumu, Nairobi and Webuye to learn how it is done. Want a business that gives you revenue daily from as early as 6am? It’s certainly milk business. How?

“Dairy farming brings in income as early as 5am and continues throughout the day over the year. In fact, it continues up to close of business at 8pm, when the cows bid you good night,” says Mr Willy Kirwa, the owner of Wilsam Dairies, a company he manages with his wife, a farm manager and two assistants.

Kirwa had also tried the transport business. At the time, he owned eight cows, which grazed freely on the farm. He began visiting other farms to see what others were doing differently. A visit to a farm in Machakos was an eye-opener on zero-grazing cows. The owner was getting 35 litres from one cow, whereas back home, his eight animals produced only 30 litres a day.

Kirwa returned home convinced that zero-grazing and the use of dry matter as feeds was the way to go. For a start, he confined three of his cows to zero-grazing, leaving the other five to roam freely. The isolated three refused to feed on the dry matter. He then brought in the other five, which fed ravenously on the dry feeds, encouraging the three to join.  After two months, the milk yield had doubled to 70 litres. Exponential growth has been the order of the day since then. He attributes this to proper management, feeds and best breeds. Zero-grazing improves milk production.

The energy the animal would have spent on free range is consolidated and used for milk production. The number of attendants, too, is reduced. The cows are exclusively fed on dry matter. Dry matter is more important than green matter in dairy feeds as the volume consumed is less and the water intake is enhanced.

A cow that consumes 80kgs of green matter takes only 40kgs of dry matter, according to Mr Kirwa. Then it takes 60 litres of water on average, translating into higher milk production. On a visit to Israel, Mr Kirwa found the cost of milk production quite high. There, ingredients are imported. He realised he could engage in farming at quite a lower cost back home, as there are readily available feeds such as maize stover, rice husks and wheat stalks.

The dry matter is made up of roughly chopped Bhoma Rhodes grass, wheat straw, maize stover and rice husks. These are mixed with molasses in lukewarm water. The moist mixture is then compacted in plastic drums. Each mature in-milk cow consumes 35 to 40 kilos daily. Calves and heifers also get the same feed. From his 18 in-milk cows, he gets between 350 and 370 litres of milk daily, thanks to the feeds.

He also keeps poultry. He started with 200 chicks, but now owns 700, earning Sh1,700 a day. With an average income of about Sh900,000 a month, the future is bright. Wilsam hopes to install a milking cooler and have 40 milking cows, he means more cow dung, and at least 1,200 litres a day. At Sh30 bob a litre, he earns Sh12.9 million a year.

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