Every now and then, Kenyans discover news ways to make money and new money-minting crops are usually introduced for an emerging middle-class.
The latest is chia seeds and farmers are fetching as much as Sh1500 (USD 15) for a kilo of the seeds. You too can start growing these seeds today.
The seeds are gaining popularity not only because of the various health benefits that they are providing but also because farmers want a less laborious crop. That the plant is quite promising is attested by various farmers who are all smiles as they secretly earn money from a plant that is rarely known. There is also growing market for chia seeds and they have made their way into local supermarkets.
Previously, Kenyans had to import these seeds from abroad since there were few farmers growing it. Nutritionists are saying that one of the reasons chia seed is fast gaining popularity is because it boosts libido and that if taken in adequate amounts, chia seeds improve brain health.
“The seeds are a good source of Omega-3 essential fatty acids which the body cannot produce. The seeds are also high in fibre, calcium and other minerals,” Mark Mwendwa, a nutritionist says. It is also being used as a seasoning – just like pepper or salt and can be added to your food.
In the hills of Nyahera in Kisumu, a local group by the name Dago Thim Momentum has introduced Chia seeds to local farmers.
Momentum Trust — a Danish organisation based in Kenya — began its farming venture in Siaya County in 2013 and according to Mr Christian Hoff, CEO of the NGO, the group started with 110 small-scale farmers in Siaya, but now, it has expanded to Kisumu and recently Oyugis, with more than 1,550 farmers who have adopted chia farming.
“Initially, we focused on educating and training small-scale farmers in modern agricultural techniques and provide them with farm inputs and seeds on loan,” says Hoff in an interview with a local newspaper. “When we realised that the climate in Siaya is a bit poor, we decided to bring in crops with high value, like chia which can thrive under minimum rainfall.”
But one question that farmers are asking is whether there is enough market for chia seeds. The Kisumu farmers are selling theirs through Aliva Foods company whose contact is firstname.lastname@example.org. The receiving companies use chia seeds to make chia butter, energy drinks, porridge, powder among other products.
Chia seeds can be eaten raw, on their own or with any meal. Given that the seeds are rich in calcium (double that in milk), some people add them in porridge meant for children, pregnant women and lactating mothers. The nutritionist explains: “the seeds have high levels of fatty oils, fibre, protein and vitamins which aid in proper brain development of babies. The food also enhances your breast milk production rate naturally.”
In Nyeri, a chia seed wave is gaining momentum also. At the Sagana Settlement Scheme, Mrs Florence Wacuka, 52, is one of the farmers growing Chia seeds.
“I enjoy trying out new crops, and that is how I ended up growing this new crop that many people are not aware of,” Wacuka says. She was introduced to chia seeds by a friend David Kimondo, a seasoned crop farmer in Kieni. She says although the veteran farmer introduced her to several exotic plants, growing chia seeds has proved to be the most rewarding venture.
“I have been told this crop is originally from South America, has a ready market because of it’s numerous health benefits. I have tasted them myself and I have seen an overall improvement in my health.” On a visit to her farm, at first sight, it appears as if invaded by weeds.
“My neighbours often laugh at me when they pass by my farm because it looks like I am growing weeds, but they do not understand that this crop is my gold,” Wacuka says.
For the few years she has grown them, Wacuka says the crops have not disappointed and she highly recommends them to any farmer who wants guaranteed returns at minimal stress. According to Wacuka, growing and tending to chia plants is not labour-intensive.
Every season, she sets aside some 15 kilos of seeds for planting after ensuring that her land is well tilled and watered.
“I plant the seeds depending on how close I want the chia to grow. They rarely have weeds,” she says.
Chia seeds can grow in a variety of soil types including well-drained to moderately fertile soils. They also need plenty of moisture for seedling development. They often germinate within seven days, after that, you can water them once a week, for a month, by which time they grow to about 30cm in height. Because the plants grow so close to each other and form a canopy, they essentially choke off any weeds and this means they do not need any weeding.
“If I notice any weeds I prefer using my hands to pull them out because I do not want to spray any chemicals that might be absorbed by the seeds,” she says. Interestingly, Chia leaves have repellent properties and no pests attack the plants.
After four months, they are ready for harvesting which is still a tedious process because the seeds have to be separated from their pods.
In Uganda, farmers like Elizabeth Natocho are now cultivating chia seeds as her main source of income. Several years ago, she used to grow maize, but today she grows chia on her 42 hectares in Namayingo in eastern Uganda, and exports the seeds to destinations markets in Germany, Ireland and Denmark.
“Chia is a huge market opening up,” says Robert Okello. His company, Sage Uganda, buys chia from Natocho and others to export. According to Sage, it was the first to grow chia in Uganda, five years ago.
At the start “it was very tedious,” Okello says. Sage’s employees had to learn cultivation techniques, test the soil at various sites and persuade small farmers to switch from traditional crops to chia. Sage Uganda is now working with around 8,900 small farmers and expects to export 500 tons of chia this year.
Agricultural scientists say that in principle, farmers between the equator and the 25th parallel – or from Egypt to South Africa – should be able to grow chia without any problems.
The plant requires warm weather and fewer than 12 hours of daylight. It originates from South and Central America, and has been cultivated in Mexico for centuries. According to legend, a single spoonful of chia would give an Aztec warrior enough strength for an entire day.
At present, African countries do not export as much as producers in South America. But the amount is steadily rising, and ever more European chia traders are looking to Africa. This is because the traditional chia-exporting countries in South America have recently been unable to cover global demand. Scientists say that African farmers have the advantage of being able to harvest twice a year, due to the two rainy seasons.
Another successful farmer is found in Kenana village some two kilometres from Njoro town. The farmer Stephen Gatimu has 10 acres of Chia at different farms.
Although Gatimu has leased the farm at Sh5,000 (USD50) per acre, he manages to break even by growing Chia which, when packaged sells for Sh500 for a 250g pack. That means a kilo can fetch Sh2,000 (USD20).
Gatimu, who also sells herbal medicine and grows herbs like rosemary, ginger and lemon grass in Molo, ventured into chia growing in 2014 after attending an exhibition in Zanzibar. “I met a farmer from Rwanda who was exhibiting chia and engaged him. I then researched more and realised how beneficial the crop is.”
Another advantage of the crop is that it is not prone to birds’ attack. On the edge of the pods are spikes that make it difficult for the birds to peck and break the hard brown cover to reach the seeds.
“Harvesting is labour intensive as I use a sickle to cut the plant at 4 inches from the ground at the point where it begins to branch.”
The next step is sorting the harvest to remove any unwanted materials, including weeds. The seeds are then left to dry for at least three days.
Monica Mburu, a food science lecturer and researcher at Dedan Kimathi University of Technology, says chia farming is still new in Kenya and few farmers are aware of the crop. The university is currently carrying out studies on the Chia seeds.
“Those who are growing the crop are doing it on trial and error basis relying on information from the internet,” she notes, adding that the crop has a high nutritional value and can be a good money-maker.
Prof Richard Mulwa, a horticulture expert from Egerton University notes that chia is an annual herb that grows up to a metre high with purple or white flowers produced in numerous clusters in a spike at the end of each stem.
Soaked seeds develop a mucilaginous gel-like coating that gives chia-based beverages a distinctive slimy texture.
Some people are using it as a remedy for arthritis.