If banana farming was not profitable, as many people think, Peter Ndegwa the chairman of Ngitha Farmers Self Help group would be a poor man.
From his two-acre farm in Kiambu County, Ndegwa, a retiree, manages to meet all his financial needs and have spare time for his family. The farm may look tiny for those who grow maize and beans for subsistence. But for Ndegwa, the bananas offer him everything and is not straining.
Ndegwa, a former banker, started farming bananas in 2005, some ten years after retirement. It all started when he attended a seminar by Africa Harvest in early 2006 and he learnt how he can make money from bananas. By then, he was dreaming of planting coffee.
For Ndegwa, making a choice on which type he was to plant was not a problem. This is because he knew all banana species were marketable as long as they were of good size. He started by planting Grand Nine, Gal, Phia 18 and Williams. Today, all these are doing very well on his farm.
Today, he can make around Sh100,000 per month if he was to market his bananas four times a month during the pick season. This is an equivalent of 2,080kgs of banana or about 700 bunches of the estimated 4000 bananas he has in his farm.
During the off-peak season he sells them at around two times per month making a clean Sh25,000 per sale.
“Banana farming is as simple as watching a hen lay eggs,’’ he says. ‘’ You don’t need much effort, you only need simple ideas in the mind.’’
He says that banana plants do not need much weeding. “Their shade makes it difficult for weeds to survive below it,” he says.
Ndegwa has employed one labourer on his farm who not only takes care of orchards but also his cows. Mr. Ndegwa says that his laborer spends around six days on his bananas – pruning, weeding when necessary, transplanting the suckers watering them and giving them manure.
To get the best from his banana farm, Ndegwa digs planting holes of 60cmx60cm. The distance between the two holes is 3mx3m. This is usually done one week before the actual planting. He adds a mixture of 4 debes of well rotten manure and top soil. After planting the sucker in the center of the hole he fills the whole with subsoil leaving a basin of about 1ft that is suitable so as to hold water.
Hi gets his young suckers from KARLO (formerly KARI) or JKUAT where they are first examined for bananas diseases such as fusarium wilt, sigatoka, cigar end rot or even banana xanthomonas wilt. These are the most common diseases in Kenya. Luckily, Ndegwa have never witnessed any disease in his farm because he makes sure he buys the best quality. That costs him about Sh140 per sucker.
When the banana plants are about 8-10 months they start flowering depending on the management and climate. By the time they flower the orchard needs desuckering, at most the orchard consist of about three to five other suckers. Desuckering is done leaving the orchard surrounded by one large daughter sucker and a small granddaughter sucker called the peeper. The rest should be taken somewhere else or even market them to other farmers.
After maturing which takes about three months after flowering, the banana looks shiny green in appearance. He may sell it ripe or raw. This now depends on what he wants or what the customers wants.
Being the chairman of Ngitha Farmers Self Help Group, Ndegwa’s work includes the search for good markets. They receive orders from the big markets such as Marikiti, Nyamakima, Githurai and Jamhuri Market.
Part of the problems that he faces includes lack of water when it gets dry. Though the banana stems holds water to sustain it in dry season the trunk can get weak and collapse if not well nourished. He tries to control this by use of pivotal stick. This is also the case when there are strong winds.
Though diseases are minimal in Ndegwa’s farm – because of his sourcing of clean suckers – Ndegwa is always cautious.
“My biggest problem apart from water I would say sometimes is to choose the best offer from my several customers. They love my variety that they better order for the next harvest that is mostly after a week or two’’ he said when I asked him apart from water what was his biggest problem.
Mr. Ndegwa says banana farming has changed his life. He is able to get quick cash, look at his animals, build a good house, and have something to save. He also has ample time for his wife since they don’t have children at school.
Looking back, he has no regrets that he abandoned his coffee dreams. He hopes that other farmers can emulate him and earn a living from January to December.