Selling cabbages is not the kind of profession that would fascinate a teenager. Images of a doctor with a stethoscope, a lawyer in court; a pilot or a superstar musician would be more appealing. But Judy Wangeci was inspired by a trader who came wearing smart leather shoes and driving a shiny Mercedes Benz car to buy cabbages from a farm, where she sometimes joined her mother to work. And that was all she wished to become in future.
Today, she is living that dream, and more so, beyond her wildest imagination – she is one of the most successful farmers in Kenya, with an annual turnover equivalent to what some corporate companies just dream about. She also grows and sells 20,000 to 40,000 cabbages every week, among other produce that fetch her handsome returns.
And as if to reinforce this fact from the little girl who many years ago worked on a farm for pocket money, this woman aged 54, was feted as the “Agriculture Champion of the Year – Women category” a few months ago, by President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta.
It is thanks to the cabbages that the mother of four boys and a girl, can now drive any car she wishes; dress and live like a queen.
Dressed in a black flowery dress and blue sandals, she emerges from a shop in Naivasha town, as we seek her out for an interview, and strolls towards us, her warm smile giving away the fact that she is the woman I was looking for.
Though her story has been told many times, she still intrigues me and I settle down in her four-wheel drive vehicle, to hear about her journey to the top. Hers is no different from the stories that tell of success: It did not come easy.
“We lived in Nyandarua and in 1975, at only 11 years old, I was already working in the family’s 20- acre farm,” she says. By the time Judy was in Standard Seven, she was planting her own potatoes and selling them in a market at Subukia in the then Nakuru District alongside her mother’s produce. “
While in secondary school, I would accompany my mother during the holidays to Naivasha and work on farms that were then owned by Europeans. I raised my pocket money this way,” she says.
After sitting her Form Four examination in 1984, the 18-year-old girl began buying vegetables from farmers in Naivasha and selling in Nakuru at a profit, starting with a capital of Ksh1,500 from her father.
It is this resolve to be a vegetable trader that pushed her to venture into the uncharted business waters of Nairobi. Guided by a woman she had met in Nakuru, she ventured into Nairobi’s Marikiti, where she would buy two gunny bags full of cabbage from Kinangop women daily and sell them.
While at the market, she met a couple of Kenyan Asians, who contracted her to supply their shops at Westlands. Her service was so good, that they started sending her to drop large amounts of produce in the upper class areas of the city.
She got married in 1987 at the age of 22 and continued supplying her customers with vegetables, for the next eight years.
“Then the children came along. I could not continue going to the market, so I opened a general shop at Kabati, Naivasha and added a green grocery,” she says.
After another eight years, this illustrious woman was able to go back to the Westlands market where she would source her produce on Monday and deliver on Tuesday.
The Naivasha market was on Wednesdays and she was part of that, too. She was the first trader to sell cabbages and tomatoes wholesale to other traders. She delivered every Wednesday until 2010, when she started planting her own vegetables.
“I took a Women’s Enterprise Fund loan of Ksh300,000 and bought my first five acres of land at the Moi Ndabi settlement scheme for Ksh250,000. With the balance of Ksh50,000, I planted maize and beans. But these were not as profitable as I had thought,” she says.
“So I added potato, tomatoes and cabbages, which turned out to be more profitable.” That dream from long ago, has now turned into a 70-acre farm that she owns in Moi Ndabi settlement scheme, Naivasha, Nakuru County, which she has painstakingly purchased bit by bit over the years. She has continued buying land and has been repaying the loans from her farm proceeds.
Fifty of the 70 acres is under drip irrigation and she is slowly but steadily expanding her agricultural empire through sheer hard work, good business acumen, and courage.
Today, the farmer grows cabbages on 45 acres with tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, peas, bananas, arrowroots; spinach and sukuma wiki on the other five acres. She also has three greenhouses.
Every day, she religiously visits the farm to inspect, especially her precious cabbages. Sometimes she plants 80,000 heads of the produce per week, and on the average, she earns not less than Ksh200,000.
“From this two-acre plot, I harvested 14 lorry loads (10-tonne trucks) of cabbages, which gave me a good profit,” she told the Smart Farmer.
Another five acres of cabbages is ready for harvesting and this, is bound to keep her smiling all the way to the bank.
Judy says that timing seasons will not work for any farmer who wants to go large scale. She adds that food is eaten every day and she plants every week without fail, to ensure that her customers and consumers always have a good and regular supply.
“If all farmers were to time the seasons, there is a possibility that the country would one day lack enough food,” she says.
The farmer who begins her day at 5 am except on Sundays, in addition to her farm, operates the only wholesale and retail grocer in Naivasha, “Wa Saimo One-Stop Market Wholesale & Retail Shop,” where she sells her produce to the public.
When we get to the shop, she immediately starts giving instructions on the arrangement of the vegetables and potatoes. She gently admonishes her employees, urging them to keep the place clean and neat.
Within 10 minutes the difference is evident. Even as we talk, her attention never wanders from the customers and she promptly answers their questions and serves them. She spots a customer who has been waiting unattended and asks her son to serve him.
“There are few jobs that can match the money I make from farming,” she says, adding that she comfortably makes her loan repayments every month using income from her farm.
READ MORE IN EDITION 41 OF SMARTFARMER MAGAZINE