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By Wycliffe Cotiak
At one of the boreholes with water in Iluanat village, around 17 kilometres from Maili Tisa town-Kajiado County, Maasai herdsmen mill around as the hot afternoon sun scorches the dusty ground from the clear blue sky above them.
On the other side, the two water troughs are under siege as hundreds of cattle, sheep and goats and a few thirsty birds await their turn to get the precious commodity-water.
The drought ravaging the region has made life unbearable for the locals and their livestock, since they now have to pay fee for domestic use and for the animals.
But few kilometres away, women toil on an onion farm that belongs to Reverend Joseph Oloimooja, who lives in Los Angeles-United States of America.
Several months ago, the scene would have been different. Without the onion farm where they now work and earn a living, women and their school-going children would be queuing at the borehole scrambling with livestock to collect water for domestic use and sell the rest to neighbours at a fee.
Oloimooja,50, has turned the dry area into an oasis of food and creating a sustainable livelihood for villagers. He farms on the 210-acre arid land,5 which are on drip irrigation where he cultivates the Neptune variety of onions.
He also grows spinach and African night shade(managu) vegetables on two acres each and watermelons on one acre.
The farmer pumped into the business Sh3million sinking the money in a borehole, erecting a solar system with nine panels, steel water towers and buying water tanks. Part of the money also went to the drip irrigation kits.
At Oloimooja’s Farms of Hope in Iluanat village, about 20 workers sort the onions-cutting off their leaves and extended roots for the market according to sizes, packaging bigger ones into nets and loading to a waiting lorry, while smaller sizes are taken inside the store.
From his five-acre farm, the farmer is expecting a total of 90,000 kilograms of onions which he sells at between Sh50-90 per kilogram at farm gate price.
The Reverend-turned-farmer explains that most of onion farmers in the country-lured by quick money-no longer pays attention to curing process and this makes their produce shunned by traders leading to post-harvest losses.
Curing, he explains, involves removal of the tops and then covering the bulbs to protect them from excessive heat from the sun or any form of moisture.
Tops are cut off by hand, knife or shears leaving 1-2.5cm of dried tops attached to the bulb, otherwise the bulb will decay, he says.
Alternatively, he notes, field curing may also be done where after bending the tops; the bulbs are uprooted and spread on the ground so long as there is no excess sun.
Oloimooja says a well cured onion has a life span of about 4-6 months. After curing process, it is recommended to pack the bulbs in open ventilated nets or boxes and store them in a cool dry place, ready for the market.
“The only reason why customers prefer cheap imported onions from Tanzania is because they are well cured making them last longer even though they are of smaller sizes”
His revelation comes hot in the heels of a recent protest that rocked Kiawara market in Nyeri County; when local traders protested against those selling cheap but imported onions from Tanzania.
Several traders at Wakulima and Gikomba markets in Nairobi interviewed confirmed Oloimooja’s fears. Ms Eunice Wanjiku has sold onions at Wakulima market for three years. She explains onions from neighbouring Tanzania have huge market at the open air market.
“There is nothing I can do. I buy the Tanzanian ones because by 7 am in the morning, I have finished all the day’s stock,” says Wanjiku as she arranges her onions inside a three wheeler car (tuk tuk) ready to transport to a leading hotel within the city.
Accessing ready market is a hurdle for most farmers. He explains, he starts marketing immediately he transplants the onion seedlings from the nursery through harvesting period.
“I start telling people something will be ready after certain months. And so at each and every stage of growth I inform my customers. This way they are able to keep track of the time when we harvest,” says Oloimooja adding that he uses social media platforms to do his marketing.
“If you grow quality onions, you will have no problem with market. Actually, you will be booked out”
Starting out in late 2017, Oloimooja says the urge to change the lives of his community-especially widowed women who could not makes ends meet-pushed him into farming.
“I also got annoyed by the ugly sight of lorries after lorries packed at Namanga customs office loaded with onions from Tanzania waiting to ferry to Nairobi. Out of curiosity, I tried with one acre. I was surprised when I harvested 18 tonnes of onion early January this year which I sold at Sh70 per kilogram” recalls Oloimooja, adding that he has since reaped the fruits of properly curing onions. He has never looked back.
Growing up, he had experienced his community’s woes and vowed to lend a helping hand. And so after a short stint at the Bible College of East Africa where he pursued a degree in theology, Oloimoja was lucky enough to get a scholarship to United States in 2000 to further his studies. “While abroad, I decided to try dairy farming…but changed it to crop because I wanted to improve the lives Iluanat people and ward off hunger,” he adds.
Telephone farming is not usually easy, especially for a Reverend who has to balance between his flock at Christ the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church Diocese of Los Angeles- USA and his crops back in drought-prone hamlet of Iluanat.
“As a priest and a minister by trade, I know how to deal with people. I have a work plan that I follow strictly; communicating with my farm managers everyday on the progress of the farm through social media.
Through his management skills, he is able to screen and get good employees whom he takes good care of through educating their children and accommodating them in his vast farm.
“I make sure I take good care of my employees’ needs be it their children’s health, schooling or any emergencies. I also encourage them to live within the farm giving them a sense of ownership” Oloimooja explains.
He continues, “Staff usually work better when they have a sense of ownership of whatever they are doing-not when all the time they are glancing over their shoulder in case the boss storms in.”
Margaret Sirea, one of the farm workers says her life has changed for the better.
“I am now able to take care of my three children without any challenge since we started working at the farm,” says Sirea while smiling.
Apart from pumping water to his plants, he uses the solar to pump water to a hospital and schools around the village. His farm workers too enjoy the solar light at night when the farm switches to a generator backup.
To get good quality onions, he notes, farmers must practise good agricultural practices, use certified seeds and take good care of the crops.
Oloimooja notes that crop farming in arid areas like Iluanat starts with making the right choice of crop to cultivate. Through soil testing, farmers are able to get the variety of crop for their soil.
“After testing the soil, we learnt from the experts that onions and watermelons were the best crop to cultivate on this land,” he notes.
Onions, he explains, thrive well in dry lands through drip irrigation as their roots do not go deep in the soil, hence able to get the requisite water and fertilizer from the drips.
To grow onions, seeds are planted in the beds, and transplanted after 45 days onto the main farm where they mature in three months.
“Make sure you raise the nursery bed 3-4 inches above the ground. Use cow manure and NPK 23:23 to cover the soil. Water is applied to the seedlings every single day for 10 days,” says Oloimooja.
Charles Munuo, farm manager at Farms of Hope says onions needs around four months to mature. According to Mr Munuo, the last three weeks before harvest, the weather should be absolutely rain-free.
“We start removing the soil as the onions grow at around two and a half months. At two weeks to harvesting we turn off the water,” explains Munuo.
Farmers need to work with experts at every step of onion production to reap high yields, says Oloimooja.
“We work with an agronomist who visits the farm every two weeks after planting until we harvest the onions” he adds.
According to Rev Oloimooja, pests and diseases such as leaf miners, white bulb rot and onion rust are the main threats to onion farming.
Until farmers become self-reliance on onion production and other crops, realising food security will remain a mirage.
“My whole dream is to dedicate the entire 210-acre land to onions,” he concludes.
Always have the soil tested to make informed decisions. Onions need a PH of 6 to 6.8. But if it is below 6, apply lime as recommended.
Prepare the land about a month before and incorporate fertiliser. Loosen the soil deeply and prepare the land to a fine tilth.
Seedbed should be 4ft wide with eight rows 10 to 15cm apart. Make 1cm deep furrows along the rows.
After 140 days, depending on the weather conditions and the cultivar used-the bulbs mature with a possibility of yielding up to 10 tonnes per ha.
It is advisable to bend the necks as soon as tips of leaves begin to turn yellow or when 10 per cent of the crop is dry.
Leave the crop to dry for 14-21 days before harvesting (digging bulbs up) to help the bulbs develop a smooth closure and minimise thick necks.
Before storage, bulbs should be cured after harvesting.
Tops are cut off by knife or shears leaving 1-2.5cm of dried tops attached to the bulb, otherwise the bulb will decay.
Beware of very dry conditions during curing as this will dehydrate the bulbs. However, very humid environment encourages fungal growth.
But in cool and slightly humid weather, the roots should be cut to 1cm and the bulbs left in for 2-3 weeks depending on the weather. It is an ideal condition for curing the onions.