Quinto Okitwi has a strong attachment to his ancestral village in Western Kenyan county of Busia thanks to its tranquil weather and fertile soils that have shielded local communities from vagaries of hunger.
The 56-year-old father of seven has been a farmer since the days of his youth and has no plans to abandon this vocation given that it has fed and educated his offspring without hassles.
Okitwi’s one-acre farm that is near Kenya-Uganda border is a case study in diversification thanks to encouragement from local agricultural extension officers and a private company that exports fresh produce to regional markets.
Recently, Okitwi and hundreds of smallholder farmers in his locality have embarked on cultivation of chillies for export in a bid to broaden their revenue streams.
“I planted chillies late last year after undergoing training on how to tend to this delicate crop. Toward the end of January, I managed to harvest 28 kilograms that fetched me 57 U.S. dollars,” Okitwi told Xinhua in a recent interview at his farm.
His ancestral village has not escaped the wrath of erratic weather patterns that have affected production of key staples like maize, sorghum, beans and millet.
According to Okitwi, depressed rains coupled with voracious pests and diseases are to blame for food insecurity and poverty affecting the majority of smallholder farmers in the low lying plains of Busia County in western Kenya.
“Farmers in this region have grappled with declining productivity linked to erratic weather patterns. This dry spell in particular has not been favorable for planting maize but our chillies have reached maturity without disruption,” said Okitwi.
He set aside half an acre to plant chillies in November last year and has benefited from training offered by a local grassroots empowerment agency which also helps small scale farmers export the famous pepper to regional markets.
Okitwi and his wife Margaret Barasa were optimistic that cultivation of chillies alongside other fast maturing vegetables will offer them additional income amid rising cost of living.
“We were excited when a charity organization introduced chili farming in this region and look forward to higher incomes in future,” remarked Barasa, adding that tending to chillies is not a demanding task.
Grassroots empowerment lobbies have been encouraging smallholder farmers in western Kenya to diversify as a means to shield them from hunger, malnutrition and financial stress.
Gordon Kapudiaka, the Busia County Manager of Joyful Women Organization (JOYWO), said chilies have presented a viable alternative to small-scale farmers.
“We have partnered with several organizations to help farmers grow and export different varieties of chillies. So far, cultivation of chillies has been realized in 60 acres of land in the larger Busia County,” Kapudiaka told Xinhua.
He revealed that small-scale farmers growing chillies in Busia County are grouped in clusters to enhance their bargaining power in the local and foreign markets.
“Our farmers are encouraged to form clusters to enable them to sell the produce in bulk. However, payments are made to the individual farmer through mobile money transfer service,” said Kapudiaka.
His organization has partnered with the Nairobi-based trade facilitation agency, Trade Mark East Africa, to help chili farmers in Busia sell the produce to buyers in Uganda.
Kapudiaka hailed the Feb. 24 launch of Busia One Stop Border Post (OSBP) by Kenyan and Ugandan presidents saying it will open new markets for Kenyan chili farmers in neighboring Uganda.
Small-scale chili farmers in Busia too said they were excited by the prospect of unfettered access to markets in Uganda, saying it will motivate them to work harder.
David Echuli, a 63-year-old father of twelve, said he is keen to scale up cultivation of chillies now that it is easy to sell the produce in regional markets that promise higher returns.
“Since I started cultivating chillies on a quarter acre farm late last year, the benefits have started trickling in and I look forward to expanding land under cultivation of this crop,” said Echuli.
He harvested 20 kilograms of chillies recently and earned 50 dollars that he spent on clearing outstanding debts and purchasing household items.
Echuli noted that chillies have guaranteed financial security to smallholder farmers unlike traditional staples whose productivity is on a decline due to loss of soil fertility and climatic stresses.