For many smallholder farmers in the Rift Valley, tilling the soil is more necessity than calling, more occupation than interest. They do it to eat, to support a family, to survive. They usually do it also to grow maize.
But to John Mwangi, farming has always been more than that; it has always been a passion. Since his days at Rongai Agricultural High School, a private school founded by the De La Salle Brothers, he has studied what he calls horticulture.”Even my neighbours know how passionate I am,” he said with a laugh. “One old man said to me, ‘Whenever I come by your shamba, you are always out in your fields.”
Perhaps that passion is why John Mwangi is willing to take some agrarian risks.The majority of Kenyan farmers rely on one crop–maize. It is a cultural icon and a dietary staple, found in dishes like ugali and githeri that are eaten daily. In Kenya, corn is king. Which makes Mr. Mwangi something of a traitor!”It’s cumbersome, it’s tiring, it’s got a lot of tasks,” he said of the yellow crop. “I will opt to plant something for a shorter period and be sure that I’m going to harvest rather than plant a very big area with maize.”
His opposition, and advocacy of alternatives is born out of education and experience. In addition to his school years, the 40-year old father of three has worked his one-acre shamba since adolescence.He lives next door to his childhood home and inherited the plot from his father years ago when he married.
Here, he grows a variety of plants on a complex rotation–patches of sweet potatoes and cabbages, tomatoes and watermelons; shrubs of cassava and trees of mangoes and papayas; vines of passion fruits and grapes over fields of carrots and onions; and even a little maize. Some are a necessity: Drought-resistant sweet potatoes fed the family for weeks through a recent dry spell, boiled and mashed at breakfast or baked into chapattis at lunch.
Some are an investment: Watermelon seeds cost him 1600 sh for 50 grams, but half of those seeds planted on a small plot yielded 15,000 sh at the market.And all are grown sustainably, using techniques meant to maximise land use and integrate farming mechanisms: Instead of digging larger fields, he digs deeper ones, ensuring that roots run deeper, plants have greater anchorage, and more water is retained.”The outcome is marvelous.”
He makes his own fertiliser by composting his livestock’s manure with other materials easily available on his farm and a solution of bioactive effective microbes. “With this stuff, my germination is always 99%.” And he keeps clear records. He budgets and plans, making sure to harness all that he can from his small farm without tiring the land. With his wife Jackline, a virtual encyclopedia of agriculture and business, he has revolutionised his shamba and created a comfortable life for his family of five.
This year in particular, his diligence will pay off. While elsewhere farmers struggle with weak maize, tinted yellow by a lack of nutrients, heavy rains, and poor seed, Mr. Mwangi will be bringing in close to 120,000 ksh. “We anticipate hunger this year because what they are going to produce, they are going to consume very fast and then you are left without food,” he said. “But for me, cassava is there, sweet potatoes are there. I’m not anticipating any hunger.