Martha Otieno gave up her job search after almost a year in the ever competitive Kenyan employment market to venture into agri-business.
The bachelor of journalism graduate from St Augustine University of Dar es Salaam retreated to her rural home in Homa Bay County in 2011 after her attempts to secure a job with media houses in Nairobi failed.
“I was putting up with a friend while depending on my parents for upkeep and you know how life in Nairobi can be expensive,” she says.
Back home, she joined a women’s self-help group that engaged in a variety of income-generating activities on a small scale; their undertakings mostly revolved around merry-go-rounds and collective investment.
Her participation in the group injected the much- needed exposure and fresh organisational skills since most members had ordinary education levels. She introduced them to small-scale banana and mango farming with the proceeds being shared among members.
After a few months of dealing with the group and having raised enough capital, she opted to go it alone after she realised she could reap big returns from farming.
“I did not want to restructure the group with my plans, that’s why I decided to chart my own path,” she says.
Armed with nothing but a determination to make money, Ms Otieno, 28, invested Sh40,000 —her entire savings— in an acre of watermelons.
She was eyeing a profit of Sh300, 000 from the leased parcel of land after just three months but barely three weeks before she could harvest, flash floods struck and swept away her entire plantation.
“We are in an area which is prone to flooding but I did not expect to come face to face with its devastating effects that fast,” says Ms Otieno.
She picked up the pieces and sought the advice of agronomists on the best way to maximise returns from the small pieces of land while spreading the inherent risks.
Ms Otieno started by leasing small parcels of land in different parts of Homa Bay County as a first step to spreadng risks as well as ensuring a steady income.
She specialised in fast-maturing crops like watermelons, tomatoes and capsicums as well as butter nuts that take an average of three months to be ready—with returns as high as Sh300,000 upon harvesting.
Her second attempt bore fruit as she broke even. Her subsequent harvest was even much better, giving her a foothold on her new-found job.
She says she was not new to farming because she used to make a little money on the side from growing rice while studying in Tanzania. But she never contemplated doing it full time.
“I would grow rice, harvest and keep waiting for a shortage in the market before selling, thus relieving my father of the burden of giving me upkeep money,” says Ms Otieno.
In just under three years since she ventured into agri-business, Ms Otieno is now the owner of a four-acre piece of land. While she cannot disclose what she makes, she clearly has no regrets.
An acre of watermelons, for instance, can fetch up to Sh300,000 while tomatoes and capsicums earn in excess of Sh250, 000 after three months and she can farm up to five acres in a season.
As her fortunes rose, her unemployed age mates approached her wanting to know her secret to success and being the business savvy person she is, she saw another avenue to push her ventures to another level while helping them out.
She championed the formation of a 20-member group registered as St Macharia’s self-help group comprising unemployed youths from Homa Bay County scattered in major towns across the country.
“We have members in Nairobi, Nakuru and Kisumu among other towns that help in co-ordination of sales after harvest,” says Ms Otieno.
The group can decide to collectively invest although it is routine that after splitting the profits from a harvest, each member should strive to individually invest in a farming project.
Thanks to Ms Otieno’s grassroots connection due to lengthy periods of interacting with local farmers, members willing to farm only need to send her money and wait for their harvest although occasionally coming to inspect their investments.
The initiative has completely cut the group members’ dependency on their parents for upkeep with others opting to further their education as they continue with job searches.
Brenda Anyango, 25, is one such beneficiary of the group. She is currently pursuing a degree course at a local private university using proceeds from the group. “I joined the group 10 months ago and already I have enrolled for a degree after two seasons of farming,” says Ms Anyango.
A few other members have since secured jobs but they remain true to the spirit of the group and use it to generate an extra income.
The group is structured in such a way that those in urban centres monitor the prices of agricultural commodities to enable it have a calendar of what crops are profitable and when.
“Most farmers incur losses because they fail to conduct a market research before embarking on farming,” says Ms Otieno.
Successful agribusiness, she says, must start with a study of the market so that one knows what to expect upon harvest since there will be ready market.