There was no plan to buy a lorry, at least not on that day. But there it was. The engine started in a ‘half-kick’, and Kairo was sold. There was the little matter of explaining to his wife that he had ‘randomly’ bought a lorry. When he excitedly announced it’s arrival to his wife the reception went from boom to bust in seconds. She had imagined a shiny, sleek, grunting machine, and not the old rust-bucket on her lawn. It looked like a soldier well past his fighting days but still insisting on putting on fatigues. The voice of your wife is close to the sound of God they say; you do well to listen. Kairo’s farming journey had since switched to potatoes. 2008 had been a year to forget. The plan was to grow a crop which the Kenyan market consumed, and that was less perishable than vegetables.
While other countries may have their potato tastes, Shangi bosses both the plate and the market in Kenya. The combination of fertile soils in Njambini and cold temperatures were good for cultivation and in reducing the pest burden of aphids and the viruses they spread. Kairo put 10 acres of land under cultivation. He wanted a sure winner. Leaving nothing to chance, he took the advice that farmyard manure was the elixir needed to give the potatoes that extra boost. Getting enough manure to spread over 10 acres of land was not easy, and it was bulky. He hired a lorry and headed to the neighbouring town called Kinangop where there were rich pickings. It was on the return journey while taking a break at one of the ubiquitous small shopping centres that he spotted the blue, four-tonne, Mitsubishi Canter. Though past it’s prime, the petite truck stood elegantly in the afternoon sunshine. The price seemed right. He did not have the full amount, but this is Kenya, where we say- palipo na wazee, hapaharibiki jambo. With a gentleman’s agreement, a sizeable downpayment and a payment plan, he drove off with the lorry.
A week later he shed his usual BMV and drove down to Njambini in the Canter; it drove well. His arrival elicited looks of admiration from the local farmers. The city man had now truly ‘arrived’- such is the symbolism a lorry evokes. The potato crop had done well and was now ready for harvest, and by God, what a stonking crop it was! The tubers were fabulous. Large, oval-shaped and brown, the villagers remarked in the local dialect ‘Waru icio ni nguano!’. There is no higher praise. There would be no dodgy pricing by farmgate buyers- this time they would have to pay the piper to call the tune. And they did, putting their money where their mouth was, they snapped up sacks on the trot at premium prices. But Kairo had an extra ace up his sleeve – a lorry of his own. On his maiden trip in the Canter to Njambini, he had left with four sacks of potatoes for sale in Nairobi and made a handsome profit.
Usually, market days occur every other day, excluding weekends. Also, different towns and markets have different market days. Therefore, if you miss the market day of your target market, you will find few takers and will have to wait a day or two. By then your product will be deemed old and a profit will be hard to make.
Potatoes are packed into 90-kilogram capacity jute sacks. But that is not all; an additional sisal mesh, locally called ‘kamusuko’, is sewn onto the jute sack topping out the total weight of potatoes in each sack at a whooping 120 kilos. Farmers despise this exploitative practice because this form of packing meant they lose a sack for every three sold.
The fresh produce market has one near immutable law- to maximize profit, you show up with fresh produce, period. Experience had hardwired this law into Kairo’s mind. By this time he had quit his job in the corporate world to concentrate on full-time farming. Having most of his eggs in the proverbial ‘one basket’ demanded high-level focus. He had called ahead of time and made arrangements for a sizeable portion of the potato harvest to be made ready for transportation. Market day was the following day. He began his journey early, taking the picturesque Nairobi Arboretum route, aiming to get onto Waiyaki Way and away from the city before the morning rush hour traffic snarl-up. Barely two kilometres into his journey, as he drove towards the first major road intersection, the lorry inexplicably lost acceleration power. The accelerator cable had snapped. This was no way to start! He recalled the former owner saying that the truck had a ‘few small issues’. Quick repairs conducted on no-mans-land soon restored the lorry to ‘new’ and the journey resumed.
On the way he was joined by his business partner, Njuguna, for the trip. At the farm, labourers piled on 28 sacks of potatoes after realizing that 35 bags was a bit too ambitious for the old lorry. Kairo slowly navigated the two kilometres of mud road and perched the heavy lorry onto the tarmac. Barring any issues, they would be in Nairobi in time for the market day the following day. Save for the regular police ‘checks’ everything was going well. Sunset was approaching, and the dark blanket of nightfall began to wrap itself around the land. By the time he got to Limuru on the outskirts of Nairobi, he couldn’t help but notice that his headlamps were rather dim. Driving became treacherous. Finding a favourable spot, he stopped and cut the engine to inspect the lamps. Something was not right. Bravely, he dismissed the issue as nothing more than the lorry ‘showing its age’. After a brief consultation with Njuguna, they resolved to resume the journey and drive slowly. He hopped into the driver’s cabin and flipped the ignition key—the lorry would not start.
Something was draining the battery. By the time they arrived in Nairobi, they had contended with everything imaginable- including slow-speed car chase by the police, for driving a lorry with dim headlamps. With no money left, Kairo nursed the severely crippled lorry into the nearest market available, City Park Market, in Parklands. A 77 Kilometre journey had taken all night. Releasing Njuguna to catch some well-deserved sleep, he called his friend, Charles, a hype-man who could sell anything under the sun. Charles arrived ready to do his craft only to encounter few bored and curious faces. Soon enough, someone explained to him that ‘In Parklands, market day was the previous day’. There were no buyers. The goods were a day late, and the next market day was two days away.
Through a mix of ingenuity and sheer grit, Charles managed to sell off a few sacks- but the day was lost. The last hope lay in crossing the city to the larger ‘Wakulima’ farmers market on the east side of the city. The lorry was still crippled- draining every battery they had. Dusk was approaching, and they needed to get it started one more time. They approached a random pick-truck transporter and struck a deal. If he gave them his battery to start up the lorry, they would give him a few sacks to deliver to a client. And they would pay him- with a bag of potatoes. Deal. They quickly switched batteries. Charles was to start the lorry and rev it up. Kairo would then remove the borrowed battery and replace it with their own. Soon Kairo was enveloped by the billowing dust as Charles revved the engine as he lay under the lorry exchanging the batteries. In the fading light and dust, Kairo couldn’t help but think ‘what am I doing here?’ By the time they arrived at Wakulima market it was dark. They found a spot to park the lorry and left to return the following day.
The potato brokerage mafia at Wakulima market were not keen on 3-day old potatoes. Wakulima market is the apex fresh produce market in the country, and ‘3 days old’ doesn’t get pulses racing. Besides, the lorry was parked at the wrong end of the market- among the carrot traders. Charles deployed his ‘A’ game, targeting the most influential voices. ‘Have a look at the potatoes’ he implored, promising them that they had never seen potatoes like the ones he has. Eventually one of the men relented. Summoning a few of his team, they followed Charles to inspect. The tarpaulin covers were thrown off, and the man stepped back to get a good look. There were bated breaths; the next words he spoke would mean salvation or damnation. ‘This lorry is old’, he paused for effect, then added ‘but it carries excellent potatoes’. The Shangi potatoes had won the approval of one of the shrewdest sellers in the city. There are moments when stars align, and this was one of them. That the dead lorry was parked at the wrong spot of the market was no longer an issue. Young men were mobilized to push the truck to a prime location, where the potato trade was conducted. Heck, even if it had been a mountain, they would have moved it. Buyers soon caught word that an unusually excellent consignment of potatoes was on offer. They surged forward in earnest, and the price haggling began at a furious pace. Within an hour, all the sacks had been sold. Money in hand, the lorry was abandoned on site for the time being. To be continued…maybe!
Action Box Potato (Solanum tuberosum) is massively consumed in Kenya. The Shangi variety is the most popular. It is unusual for potatoes to be grown under irrigation; most of the time, farming is rain-fed. Typically, potatoes grow in colder climate areas. However, if you want to grow potatoes for seed, you may want to consider modern soil-less methods such as hydroponics. Only 3% of Kenyan farmers grow potatoes for certified seed. There is excellent financial potential there, considering there are over 500,000 potato farmers in the country. Watch this fantastic video featuring Professor Kibe from Egerton University. There are many excellent resources on potato farming authored by Cropnuts, Graduate Farmer and KALRO