The two hundred metre stretch from the main gate to Mwaura Kirore’s family house at Maragua in Murang’a is lined by well-tended flowers and a green kei apple fence. Beyond the fence, and gently swaying to the winds on either side of the main drive is his private goldmine — a plantation of tissue culture bananas. It is here that the former Kenyan ambassador to Germany and later Kigumo Member of Parliament once lost a whopping Sh15 million to his farm two years ago, in his first attempt at farming after retirement.
Here is how it happened
Like many career professionals, the former envoy had set his eyes on farming after retirement. So before calling it a day from both diplomacy and politics in 2002, he embarked on preparing his 50-acre farm at Summer Estates in Maragua. In the first two years of retirement, Ambassador Mwaura threw all his energies and resources into his farming, at first sowing the entire 50 acres with French beans. The crop was doing very well, or so he thought. So well the former envoy put in even more money and energy into it; so much that he had no time to do his calculations. When he did, he got a shock, one that would have sent any faint-hearted man to a hospital with a stroke, heart attack or mental break down. He had incurred losses amounting to Sh10 million! “The cost of production was very high, I had ready market for the produce, but the buyer would return almost half of the deliveries making flimsy excuses. There was also no way to confirm that the rejected French beans had originated from my farm,” he recalls. More losses came from the enthusiastic pumping of water into the farm from River Maragua, about five kilometers away, to his farm resulting in electricity bills amounting to Sh200,000 every month; while his wage bill exceeded Sh100, 000 a month.
The former envoy and politician ditched horticulture, while living the expensive irrigation systems he had installed still lying idle on the farm. But not his retirement plan — farming! Today, he considers the Sh10 million losses a payment for lessons on farming. “It helped me learn some good lessons, which have helped me transform the farm to what it is now,” says the farmer. On ditching horticultural farming, he planted mango trees on 10 acres of land and tissue culture bananas on the remaining thirty acres. Last year, he ditched mango farming, uprooting the more than 1,000 trees he had planted due to what he calls lack of reliable markets and exploitation by middlemen.
“I was getting about Sh60,000 from all the trees. We produced great mangos but brokers took advantage of the lack of markets to exploit farmers. Mango is a good venture here but not without a processing industry. It is a very perishable fruit that can’t wait, forcing farmers to sell it at throwaway prices. I have no time to go looking for markets; I can’t work so hard with all the investments and still go looking for markets or wait to be exploited,” he says. Today, the former envoy and politician has settled on tissue culture banana farming, a venture he says he is more comfortable with, compared to the deceptive French beans and the over-brokered mango. He adds that tissue culture bananas mature fast, and a farmer starts reaping benefits in less than a year. “I settled for bananas. Buyers come here and buy at an agreed price. The biggest advantage I have is that I produce in bulk. This way, I am able to supply the buyers at anytime,” he says. He has since replaced the 10 acres of mangoes with bananas. Still, despite the costly initial hiccups, the former envoy says he would not exchange farming for anything else. Farming, he says, is both fun and rewarding, but only if and when the farmer commits himself to the venture, and cultivates a personal attachment to it, personally supervising operations on the farm. “It is not the type of business where one relaxes and sits back waiting for his or her money to work for him or her,” he says. He has since settled down to enjoy farming. At his homestead, you will always find black and white gumboots neatly arranged on the verandah outside the main house. If one of the pairs is not there, then the owner is out in the farm inspecting his crop of banana.
“I was a career civil servant for 30 years and I tell you there is nothing as enjoyable as farming. My day begins at 5:30am when I do some small activities and by 6am I am out inspecting my farm. Farming has made me a happy man in retirement,” he says. The attachment that the farmer has cultivated with his farm is astounding. During a tour with the Smart Farmer, he spent so much time carefully studying his crops that he would momentary forget about the tour altogether. The former envoy urges the government to step in to shield farmers against exploitation by brokers, middlemen and conmen in the farming sector by negotiating trade deals with Europe, opening new markets in Asia and tapping on African trade blocks. The country’s diplomatic policy, he says, must give priority to marketing Kenya’s agricultural products. “Policy on agriculture and marketing is very weak. Recently, an agreement on entry of Kenyan flowers and other products to EU expired. For a while, farmers lost billions of shillings; this is an area that should never lapse. Government must ensure that our agricultural products are well marketed in Europe. We must capitalize on new economic engagements with Asia and China, they are potential markets, Kenya is an agricultural country, agricultural products must be well marketed and protected,” he says. The government, he says, must further waive duty and taxation of farm inputs, which over-burden and frustrate both small and large-scale farmers. In addition to bananas, the farmer has a herd of dairy cows and kienyenji chicken, which produce manure for his banana plantation. “When I was doing French beans I was buying manure but not anymore. With the bananas, we ensure each stool gets manure once every year,’ he concludes.