Part 1: Cabbages: The glut, grit, and grind
The idea to go into commercial farming occurred by happenstance- someone had land, a lot of it and good land at that. Kairo had the ‘dare’ factor and fortune favoured the brave. Part of the allure was undoubtedly the drive to the farm. The 75 kilometres drive from Nairobi to Njambini was a refreshing drive. The green landscapes hug either side of the Great Rift Valley, raw in its beauty, the air crisp and surgically clean. Kairo loved to drive fast, an indulgence made possible by the smooth tarmacked road that is the Great Northern Road. Njambini lies to the east of the Aberdare mountain ranges in Nyandarua county. With cold temperatures, significant rainfall and deep volcanic soils it is perfect for farming. As Kairo drove towards Njambini to scout the land, his fertile imagination soared. Healthy crops grew in his mind and money lined his pockets. He recalled the first time he saw the land. It was love at first sight.
An urbanite, the words ‘two clicks’ rolled off his tongue smoothly as we spoke. In his words, the land was waiting for the son-of-man to manifest. And manifest he did. Kairo drove one of those over-engineered 3-series BMWs. Parked by the roadside in Njambini, the car looked posh and out of place for the utilitarian thinker more accustomed to donkey carts. Its presence silently announced a serious statement of intent; here was a man from the city, and the city means business.
It cost five thousand shillings to lease an acre for a year. Compared to expenses in Nairobi City, this was a steal. He roped in his friend, Paul, into the venture and they leased the whole 20-acre plot. The three factors of production aligned perfectly. They had the land, labour was on hand, and with capital spurring production, all that was left was profit. It did not take much discussion to settle on cabbages. A short-cycle brassica, cabbages take shy of 3 months to be ready for harvest. Some varieties take even shorter times. Demand for this vegetable remains high all year round in Kenya. At the time, a single head of cabbage was selling at 20 Shillings. From their estimation, they could easily plant 20-30,000 crowns. The math was compelling. The mental checkmate triggered an old Kikuyu proverb to self; ‘Níndaringa mùkuru wa thīna ‘, loosely translated as ‘I have crossed the valley of poverty’.
The land was tilled by tractor in 5-acre sections at a time. The broken-up ground was still too rough and needed to be followed up by hand tilling twice to get the plots ready for planting. The cash burn had begun in earnest. Next, a strangely expensive combination of manure, DAP and NPK fertilizer was applied. Why this was necessary for virgin land which could have sustained the cabbages unaided was bizarre. In Kenya, farming is quite prescriptive, with the seed-fertilizer-pesticide triumvirate firmly entrenched. The agronomists were doing a brisk business, as they cashed in on everyone’s dreams. Money was made hand over fist by selling the immaterial as essential. Everyone that could plant cabbages was planting. Blindsided by ambition, the apparent consequences of the impending glut were withheld from the novice farmer. In a swift break, in our conversation, Kairo paused, then said,
The cabbages grew. The progress as their round heads formed was beautiful to watch. Conversations now revolved around the anxieties of firefighting frost snaps and pests such as aphids. Calls in the wee hours of the morning from the farmhand requiring money to buy some form of ‘dawa’ to rescue the crop from every imaginable cabbage-slaying boogeyman were part of the game. Kairo took it all in his stride, harvest day was coming soon enough. At about the same time farm produce brokers began circling, marking out territory for the farm gate purchase. His crop has done well. With help from his farmhand, Kairo counted 23,000 head of cabbage. Hello, money.
The opening gambit by the brokers was 8 shillings for a head of cabbage which Kairo outrightly rejected. The following week the price dropped to 7 shillings. With no way to evacuate the crop by himself, he capitulated and sold. The brokers gave him 6.50, deducting 50 cents for each head of cabbage they bought to pay the cabbage picker. Neither did they buy the entire crop, instead, they concerned themselves with choosing the biggest and best of everything. ‘The market was terrible’ they argued! The following week the brokers returned, this time buying at 5 shillings, then 3.50 the following week and 1.50 the week after as the crop began to look shabby. In the space four weeks, a single cabbage was selling for a shilling. The glut had taken another scalp. The agronomists stood by acting nonplussed by the all too familiar carnage of dreams. They stood ready to sell the next batch of seed, as always. And to spur the Stockholm syndrome-like sale, they ventured a little ‘advice’.
Off-season planting is when you synchronize the planting and harvest times to avoid the glut. Hearing about it first time always evokes that ‘why did I not think about this earlier’ moment. But there is a catch, often omitted from the sage advice. Rainfall masks the water-guzzling nature of cabbages. If you want to plant cabbages off-season, make sure you have steady source of water. Farmers will typically plant late November aiming to harvest in February and into glory. Kairo rolled the dice. On the farm was a small well but whose inadequate output soon became apparent. The December to January drought was savage. Without the rainfall subsidy from nature, the seedlings were hard hit. This time nature outflanked both the farmer and broker and decimated the crop.
Later that month, while Kairo was driving upcountry to visit relatives, he found himself stuck behind a truck full of cabbages. Watching it lumbering up the hill was a bittersweet moment. The off-season was now in full bite. In that lorry was at least 2,500-3000 head of cabbage, easily worth over 200K. His own dream has not materialized. The truck ahead of him was the future he had imagined for himself. It was a poignant moment. Just two days before, a friend of his who had visited his farm had called. The conversation had quickly moved to cabbages. Unaware of the failed crop he offered his congratulations, Kenyan style! ‘Kairo, you must be making a killing!’ he said, ‘I have been shopping for cabbages, and the most miserable head costs 80 shillings’.
The third season was different. Determined to make a profit, he cut out the farm gate buyers and hired a truck to transport the crop to Mombasa at the Kenyan coast. Finally, money began to line his pockets. It was gruelling- a 10-hour night journey in the lorry to arrive at the break of dawn at Mwembe Tayari market followed by a war of attrition over price with other sellers. ‘The aim was to break even as soon as you could, make a bit of profit and take this with you back home on the night bus. Whatever was unsold was left to the brokers to sell off the at whatever price and release the lorry for the 10-hour return journey. It was a hell of a ride.’ Kairo said, laughing at the memory. Newly married, the profit from cabbages came at a familial cost. A more family-friendly crop had to be sought. He didn’t have to look so far. To be continued….
Action Box Cabbages are an extremely popular vegetable in Kenya. Other popular crops of the Brassica family that are grown in Kenya are kale, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli and Brussel sprouts. Growing is mainly rain-fed. The main growing areas are the highlands of Nyahururu, Njambini, Meru, Mt.Elgon, Bungoma, Elburgon, Kapsabet and Molo. These are breadbasket areas of Kenya. There are many excellent resources online for these crops authored by Oxfam, Deluxe Africa and Graduate Farmer. The main pest threats are aphids, diamondback moths, cabbage, webworm, cabbage cluster caterpillar and Bagrada bugs. Diseases include the aphid transmissible Turnip mosaic virus, Black rot, and bacterial soft rot. There is usually heavy use of pesticides, but there are biological control options. A very excellent resource is available from the International Centre Of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) website