By Samuel Ndisya
It’s on a hot Saturday when Enterprise visits Timau, Meru County. We follow the Laikipia–Meru road where we witness vast tracts of wheat, rapeseed and potato plantations on our left and right.
Three kilometres before we reach Kisima Centre, where potato seed propagation is done, we turn right and find growers preparing their farms for potato plantation. This area is known as Wamugi.
We find Martin Dyer on a tractor loading potato seeds from a one of the sacks in a pickup adjoined to the tractor. Wearing a short and farm boots, he welcomes us to his fam in fine Swahili. He narrates that he has been in the farming business for more than three decades, growing different crops manually, entirely depending on human labour for land preparation, planting, weeding, spraying and harvesting.
“I ventured into agriculture in the 1980s while still young. I have grown a number of crops on my 70-acre land but it was last season when I began growing potatoes. I was motivated by a ready market,” says Mr Martin, who has English roots.
He has leased this land from local owners and pays them at the end of each season from the sale of harvested produce.
Mr Martin purchases certified potato seeds from the nearby Kisima Centre, and then leases a special type of tractor that employs a technology that can perform five farm activities at once.
“Due to the enormous size of this farm, when a farm equipment firm contacted me on the possibilities of helping me mechanise all farm activities, I couldn’t resist. They offered me a tractor that did chiseling, ploughing and now helps me to furrow, put the right amount of fertiliser, drop the seeds and bury them in the soil,” the 56-year-old says.
But what intrigues many farmers is the ability of the machine to ensure accurate spacing within and across rows.
A farmer is required to put 200 kilos of NPK fertiliser into the loading chamber before filling it with potato seeds. Two people will be needed at the back to load seeds. The seeds are picked by a rotary machine that holds and drops them into the furrow areas with fertiliser as the tractor moves.
Mr Martin says in one day, he plants 10 bags of potato seeds, a job that takes more than 200 workers to complete in three days.
“When I use labourers, it costs me more and yet their work is not perfect. They usually forget about the correct spacing the amount of fertiliser required per seed, besides cutting and injuring tubers during harvesting.”
Acccording to research, mechanisation cuts the cost of production by 50 percent and ensures acidity soil levels are controlled since machines drop the set fertiliser requirement per seed. It also breaks hard pans and restores soil drainage that eliminates erosion.
Titus Musyoka, the manager of farm equipment firm Tinga, says that one acre requires 30 manual workers to plant potatoes and it will take them eight hours and demand Sh400 each.
“Using our tractors, one acre will only require a driver and two farmhands, and it will take them five hours. Total cost for that is Sh5,000 compared to Sh12,000 that a farmer will pay casuals,” he says.
He explains that during harvesting, mechanisation helps the farmer prevent post harvest losses that are experienced when using human labour since they cut and damage potatoes worth good cash at the market.
The tractor’s ability to cut costs, save time and enhance quality is a major boost to farmers of Timau area. The machine can be used to plant a variety of plants since it can be adjusted to the correct spacing requirements.
Mr Martin projects to harvest about 200 bags per acre this season from his Voyager potato variety. This will fetch him between Sh2,500 and Sh5,000 depending on demand.
Tinga has partnered with with several companies – Bayer East Africa, Siraji Sacco, Quipbank, Yara, Sereni Fries and Farmers Association of Kenya — to help farmers cut costs and improve yields. Yara provides soil testing and fertilisers, Bayer East Africa provide pesticides, Siraji Sacco, while Quipbank finances agribusiness. Sreni Fries is the potato buyer while Tinga offers mechanisation services on a lease and rent basis.
“This partnership has been a blessing to us. I don’t have millions of shillings to buy a tractor. I only need a few thousand shillings to afford the mechanisation services,” says Fridah Wachira, a smallholder potato farmer in Timau, a few kilometres from Mr Martin’s farm.
“At one point I considered quitting farming for good due to high costs and poor yields. But when Tinga came, it’s machines broke the hard pans on my farm and now plant roots can penetrate a well-grained soil,” she narrates
She says that she used to harvest only 30 bags of potatoes from her one acre farm but now she gets 130 bags from the same piece of land.
Previously, many potato farmers used tubers they harvested as seeds, but from the training by the partnering firms, they now understand that seeds need propagation and treatment before planting.
“Most of them didn’t know that the size of a potato seed should be two and three centimetres in length with a radius of 1.5 centimetres for spherical varieties,” says Mr Musyoka.
Lake Basin Development Authority managing director Dr. Evans Atera observes that most farmers are afraid of technology that they claim is expensive without realising that most mechanised farm services can be leased at an affordable fee.