At the 250-acre farm belonging to Kajiado East MP Peris Tobiko’s are four huge greenhouses where she grows basil herb for export.
She can’t meet the market demands – and has been asking other farmers to join the lucrative market. Previously, she thought there was money in rearing cattle.
“Forget about cattle. Yes, I have them, but that is not my secret gold. I discovered the gem in herbs and have never looked back,” she says.
Her greenhouses sit on six acres of the farm. For the last five years, Madam Tobiko — who happens to be the first Maasai woman to be elected Member of Parliament — has been growing basil for export.
And business is good, she says. “We harvested some 4 tonnes last week. This batch is due for harvest this week. They mature after one and a half months. They take three weeks in the nursery and three weeks after transplanting they are ready for harvest. After harvest we will sort and package them for export to the Netherlands and Sweden,” she says.
Before diving into it, Mrs Tobiko did her research and discovered a rich market for the herb in Europe and tapped into it. “One thing with the export market especially Europe is that the receiving company wants tonnes and tonnes which sometimes I cannot meet. I would encourage other farmers to tap into this gap,” says the MP.
She goes on; “For instance, the basil herbs we exported on Monday was immediately taken with the customer demanding that we get her the sum of 400kg by this Friday.” But what is basil and what are its benefits? Basil herb is one of the ancient and popular herbal plants with important health-benefits. This highly prized plant revered as a “holy herb” belongs to the family of Lamiaceae, in the genus: Ocimum. According to Wikipedia, basil herb is originally native to Iran, India and other tropical regions of Asia. Basil leaf is a herb with many uses in cooking, natural medicine, and more. Nutritionists say it can cure headache, soothes ear infection or reduce blood sugar.
We harvested about 300 kilos on Monday with more harvest on the way. I am expecting close to four tonnes by the end of this Friday,” she says.
For those interested in export business, she says the process is intense, but rewarding. “After harvesting, I make prior arrangements with the flight bookings and have a refrigerated track on standby on the day of harvest before proceeding to the airport.” She says once exported, there are always ready customers waiting at the airport to have them. She landed a deal with a British company who have linked her to the UK market.
For production, she says a farmer must get some things right. First, is soil test to establish which nutrients are missing. “Every season before I plant, I call in an expert from a local company called Crop Nuts to find out what nutrients are missing. You see, most farmers just start planting before testing the soil. They just farm blindly which is disastrous,” she says. She further explains that it takes three weeks for the herb to be propagated in the nursery before it can be finally transferred to the farm where it will need another three weeks before it is ready for harvest.
Like all crops, basil are prone to attacks by pests and diseases. In order to counter such attacks, especially mildew and developing too much moisture she makes it a point to have an agronomist visit her farm on a regular basis. Though the herbs business is thriving, like a wise farmer, she has diversified her ventures. “My cattle are my back up plan. You never know… with farming.”
Growing basil is simple. Although the crop can be grown in open fields, growing in a greenhouse ensures good quality crop that meets market requirements. Basil is first raised in a nursery four to six weeks before transplanting. The crop requires sufficient water especially the first three weeks after planting. From the fourth week, the amount of water is minimised. The crop thrives in wide range of soils provided they are well-drained with a pH range of 5.5 to 7.5. The crop takes 42 days to mature producing light green silky leaves with a strong smell. The leaves are harvested after every 10 days. Basil needs shade and heat to thrive. It cannot survive the chilly night condition.
Basil can be grown in most parts of the country. All it requires is that you must do a soil analysis and a comprehensive market research. You need to get good quality seeds for a quality produce. Invest in a good storage facility to maintain farm freshness. If you are targeting the export market, you will be expected to conform to Global GAP Certification and Euro GAP which include good chemical store, a hand washing unit, a foot bath and good water supply. Such farming practices include pest management and use of certified propagated materials plus traceability.
Interested farmers have to undergo training by the exporting firms, to understand the quality requirements for export. After harvesting, farmers have to sort, grade and package the produce on their own before delivering it to the airport. Poor quality is rejected Knowledge on the quality of leaves and stems required in the international market is critical. As much as the demand for basil is huge, poor quality produce is not accepted. Basil is low maintenance because it is resistant to pests and diseases.
Occasionally thrips and downey mildew might attack but they are easily controlled by pesticides. Field hygiene is important in controlling pests and diseases. Drip irrigation is the most preferred method of watering as minimises the wetting of leaves which can be a source of disease. A standard green house of a dimension of 8 metres by 30 metres would produce up 100 kilos of basil. A kilo of basil sells at Sh200. From a quarter of a plot a farmer can harvest 40 to 50 kilos or slightly more.
Sweet basil is the most preferred variety. Other varieties are Camphor and African blue. The herb is used to treat a wide variety of diseases. It is also common for anti-inflammatory properties and it is known to stimulate circulation, immune response and anti-oxidants. Basil is also used as a spice in preparing Italian, and Thai foods.
The herb is rich in vitamin K and beta carotene. After maturity, harvesting can continue for many seasons depending on good husbandry. Harvesting is by use of secateurs and is done in the morning when the crop is fresh and moist to avoid wilting and to maintain freshness.
Harvest leaves by pinching them from the stems any time after the young plants have reached a height of six to eight inches. Pinch the leaves from the tips of the stems to encourage the plant to branch and make more leaves. Try to keep the stems pinched even if you don’t use the leaves; otherwise, the plant will begin to flower and make seeds, and will stop producing leaves. Sprigs are cut according to the customers’ specifications.
International buyers say East Africa meets a paltry 15 per cent of their demand for the herb even as markets continue to balloon following discovery of new uses of the herb.
key markets include the EU which in 2013 imported 302,000 tonnes of spices and herbs from developing countries like Kenya worth € 1 billion.
For more info on the seeds, kindly contact, Premier Seed Company, +25433468574