The 140km road between Emali, on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, and Loitokitok, on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, cuts through parched land punctuated by small sparse patches of green. Even livestock, largely associated with this region, are hard to come by.
As one ascends Loitokitok, however, the weather gets cooler and the land greener. But about 20 kilometres off the highway, at a village overlooking Mt Kilimanjaro to the south, the weather returns to the unforgiving heat and aridity.
After a rugged, dusty terrain, just when we are about to give up on ever reaching Kilimanjaro Organic Farm, a waft of cold air assaults our brows and just then acres upon acres of garlic, tomatoes, cabbages, sukuma wiki, onion, spinach and capsicum interspersed with grevillea, dazzle our eyes.
A borehole, a generator and solar power all work to take water through the drip irrigation system that feeds crops in greenhouses and those in open cultivation, ensuring water is used sparingly and accurately.
This is the work of Caroline Moige Kerongo, a Swiss-based nature lover whose adventurous spirit brought her here, on the leeward side of the Kilimanjaro where rain hardly falls.
“I initially wanted to buy land and let it appreciate then I said to myself: Look, I can do something. I have a passion for anything that grows. Now this has become something else altogether,” she explains as we sit down over a cup of tea.
She chose the organic option because she has a passion for nature and sought to debunk the assertion by many that one can’t produce enough food organically.
“We have found out is that it is possible to grow a lot of food without synthetic fertiliser or pesticides. In the last season, we had a really big problem when our onions became too big.”
But her plans for the 42-acre Kilimanjaro Organic Farm go beyond producing food.
“Now I have 18 employees; they used to be 50, but we scaled down. We also take people who are young and out of school, people we can afford. Our aim is to create a sustainable community. We don’t do it just for income.”
Caroline left Kenyatta University for France in 2007 and she has been abroad ever since, settling in Switzerland with her husband and children.
“But my passion has remained doing something back home. There is a lot of struggle here, accessing medicare and all. Initially, I had thought of doing it just for a profit, but with time I saw what I was up to.”
One of the striking features in the tomato section are yellow panels, which Caroline informs us, are traps for the virulent tuta absoluta, the pest wreaking havoc in tomato across the country.
SOMETHING TO LEARN EVERYDAY
“I have been seeing many farmers complain about this tuta absoluta yet my biological methods work absolutely well. We use neem leaves which we crush and make a spray. We put sticky pheromone in the trap which attract the males and kills them. This means the females that remain will not reproduce and multiply.”
She also employs crop rotation and intercropping to control pests and diseases.
Ever since she was young, Caroline was always curious about life, an attribute that has come in handy in her job where she has something to learn every day.
“I study a lot online and I have visited a lot of farms in Switzerland and picked lessons on how to do organic farming successfully.”
Besides using animal manure to enrich her farm, Caroline has contracted a neighbour to supply her with cow dung, which she uses to make gas for cooking and lighting.
The biodigester also produces a lot of slurry which she uses as foliar feed for her crops. And the results have been encouraging.
One greenhouse with four beds gave her more than 10 tonnes of tomatoes in the last season. Caroline says the produce would have been a lot more if she was not forced to remove the crop early after using a wrong concoction to cure a disease attack.
She has planted more than 1,000 grevilleas to shield crops from the strong winds as well as help break down humus. Some trees are also good pest repellents.
The farm should be able to break even in two years, she says, as she advises farmers to roll out big projects in stages.
“We decided we won’t do the farm all at once. We are still investing. The entire 28 acres is under drip irrigation. Drip is less intensive and tedious. You only open and leave it. With it we also don’t need to stake tomatoes which saves on labour and money.”
But the system is expensive with an acre requiring Sh155,000 to install. “Furrows are cheaper and we are likely to do it for the phase two. But it is only a means to an end; you can do it sustainably in such a dry place as it will use a lot of water.
She also plans to go into dairy which will help in manure supply beside diversifying income. She buys manure at Sh50 per 90kg bag.
FRUIT FARMING AND VALUE ADDITION
She says to get good prices, she produces tomatoes when there is little in the market. An organic buyer visits her farm twice a week for the produce. She also supplies supermarkets in Nairobi and local urban centres. She says the main challenge is that not a sizeable number of Kenyans have embraced organic food.
She sells a kilo of tomatoes at Sh80, onions Sh50 but added this can go as high as Sh150 depending on the season.
She is now looking for international certification so that she can enter the export market where she hopes to bank on her networks.
Caroline says it takes a year to get all the paper work though she is certified to sell organic produce within the East African Community.
She now plans to embark on fruit farming and go into value addition where she will be making garlic paste and powder as well as tomato sauce.
“I see a problem in food security because of the intensity with which we do it, the amount of chemicals used and the fact that it is not very well-regulated. I have seen millions of acres in America which are long dead. If we don’t take care of our soils, we may soon reach a point of no return. For the soil to give back we need to nourish it,” she says passionately.
As Caroline brings more land into organic farming, she is in her own small way contributing to agro-ecology, a farming system that uses cultivation techniques and breeding programmes that do not rely on chemical fertilisers, pesticides or artificial genetic modifications.
And what better place to take her battle, but Mt Kilimanjaro, the poster boy for climate change because of its fast-disappearing glacier. To make her mission sustainable, she dreams of a time when she will have a school to teach organic farming.
Dr Chris Macoloo, the regional director for World Neighbours, an organisation in the field of sustainable agriculture, says natural soil-building practices such as intercropping, composted crop residue and manure as well as biological pest-control can produce enough food for commercialisation.
“The debate has always been whether agro-ecology can be viable commercially. It is now no longer debatable that organic farming can feed the world as various researches have proven so.”
Organic farming strives for sustainable production in agriculture, enhancement of soil fertility and biological diversity.
In this kind of farming, synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, antibiotics, genetically modified foods and growth hormones are prohibited.
Weed, disease and pest control are controlled or eliminated using natural means