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The future is in organic farming

If veteran Los Angeles Times journalist and author David Lamb had met a group of peasant farmers in Laikipia before he penned his book, The Africans, he would have been scandalised and depressed to learn the methods they had adopted to nurture their crops.

When penning his book published in 1986, Lamb was convinced that use of fertilisers and other agro-chemicals were the hallmarks of modern farming and was appalled by Africa’s low uptake of these ‘scientific methods of farming”.

According to Lamb, Africans were not serious in farming because: “… farming in black Africa is still a hoe-and-sickle enterprise, more primitive than any part in the world. For example, there are but 7 tractors for every 25,000 farmed acres (compared to 45 in Asia, 57 in South America and 240 in the United States) and Africa uses only 4 pounds of fertiliser for every acre. (Asia and South America each use about ten times more; the United States, twenty times more.

This begs the question”:  Is it viable to farm without applying fertilisers and chemicals and expect reasonable return of investment?

A group of small scale farmers in Laikipia have an answer to this question and they are relatively wealthier, happier and healthier. They have refused to conform to Lamb’s worldview, which has ironically been adopted by African governments, Kenya included, to shape policies and farmers’ training manuals, ignoring the attendant dangers of application of harmful pesticides and fertilisers. They have in effect exposed millions of their citizens to grave health dangers.

For decades, African governments have been investing a lot of resources in importing fertilisers and chemicals in a bid to maximise food production to feed the ever expanding population reliant on the shrinking agricultural land.

However, a number of studies conducted over this period indicate that while the importation and use of fertilisers and chemicals has become more popular among farmers this has been at a great health cost. One such study conducted by Abraham Macharia in vegetable growing areas of Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Murang’a, Nyandarua, Nyeri, Makueni and Meru in 2005 found there has been increased use of pesticides.

The Study: Pesticides and Health in Vegetable Production in Kenya” concluded that ”frequent exposure to pesticides by farmers and farm workers is very common and resulted in short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) illnesses.”

“The chronic illnesses include cancer, asthma, dermatitis, endocrine disruption, reproductive dysfunctions, immunotoxicity, neurobehavioral disorders, and birth defects …furthermore, deaths resulting from direct exposure to pesticides are also common. ” reads part of this report

According to World Health Organization (WHO), 9 million deaths worldwide are related to environmental pollution and that, chronic, non-communicable diseases make up 86% of the total burden of disease in the WHO European region. Despite all this gloom, there is sliver of hope as Isack Muraya found when he ventured into potato farming two years ago.

“I was just about to plant potatoes on my two acres in Nairutia, Laikipia county when a friend who farms in Narok introduced me to organic farming. Instead of buying DAP fertiliser, Muraya was advised to buy seven tonnes of goat manure. After planting he adopted an unconventional method to ward off fungal diseases such as late and early blight.

“I just warmed some water and put in a bar of soap. I then let the water settle for twenty-four hours. I later drew a cup of the soapy water and put it in a 20-liter knapsack sprayer. To this concoction I added a cup of milk and then sprayed,” he narrated. He used about 8 Knapsacks to apply this mixture to his potatoes. He repeated the exercise once a week until his crop matured.

The results were amazing. While other farmers who had applied fungicides and foliar feeds to prevent blight and boost growth were complaining, my crop flourished. Had the rains not ended prematurely, I would have harvested more than the 40 bags per acre I got. “

This is one of the many organic farming methods some health-conscious farmers are using to run away from choking prices of farm inputs and their deadly consequences. According to Muraya, there was no need to apply any foliar feed to his potatoes because milk acted as a fertiliser and fed the plant with the much needed calcium.

This, Abraham Mugambi, an agronomist explains is not voodoo science. He is happy to add more natural methods of producing healthy foods. The agronomist adds, “many farmers have been using a lot of pesticides to control some pests which can naturally be repelled by some naturally growing weeds. Mexican marigold mixed with hot pepper does wonders in keeping away pests.”

Mugambi postulates that if this plant (weed) is intercropped with with tomatoes, it will keep away aphids and white flies. “This weed (mexican marigold is also useful in treating soils which have been infected with nematodes and fusariam wilt, which are a big threat to tomato farmers.,” Mugambi adds.

He adds that garlic too is very effective in controlling powdery mildew and down mildew which afflict pumpkins, butternuts as well as tomatoes. “When you mix garlic with baking powder, some water and then add oil to act as a sticker you have just created a broad spectrum fungicide capable of preventing fungal diseases which are very common during the wet and cold season.

And there is silver lining in all this as an aviator, Robert Muchesia, who also has a company specializing in fresh food delivery in Nairobi for a niche market explains. “Out of 5,000 customers who get their food supply from our company Fresh Pro, 500 of them insist on organically grown food.” Muchesia says.

These are the consumers who will demand to know how their vegetables have been grown and whether there are residues of pesticides in the produce.

To protect his clients, Muchesia, has acquired a nitrate detector which he uses to measure samples of the produce from farmers before they are delivered to customers. He occasionally visits the farms supplying him with produce to ensure they are using best practice methods of farming.

“If the level of nitrates is higher than the recommended rate, I take a picture of the sample and send back to the farmer, explaining his supply does not meet the standards.”

The most affected crops, as Muchesia explains are tubers such as potatoes, onions and potatoes because commercial minded farmers sometimes apply too much fertiliser and chemicals in the hope of producing more.

Owing to the problems Fresh Pro has been experiencing from some unscrupulous farmers. Robert has now contracted a select group of producers who are dedicated to organic farming.

“Although Fresh Pro been in operation since 2016, we have not been able to closely monitor how farmers grow our supplies as we would have liked. We intend to incorporate agronomists who will train our farmers how to exclusively grow the leafy vegetables tubers and tomatoes organically.”

Although the  company has been selling as much as 500 kilos a week before the Covid19 pandemic, Muchesia believes that more and more consumers are becoming conscious of what they eat creating a huge demand for organically grown foods in future.

By Amos Kareithi, a writer, journalist and farmer

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