Ndalu Trading Centre in Tongaren, Bungoma County, is some 25km south west of Kitale, Kenya’s breadbasket.
A murram road leads to the centre, where tens of traders converge daily to sell their wares.
Not far from the centre is Viakwetu Farm, which hosts different crops and livestock.
Laura Nelima Lubasia grows mainly herbs on part of the 15 acre-family farm.
“I farm some 20 different herbs, spices and other medicinal plants organically and in the open field,” says the soft-spoken Laura. “These are rosemary, sage, lemon grass, lavender, lemon verbena, artemisia, perfumed geranium, hibiscus, mulberry, gooseberry, stevia, peppermint, catnip and red raspberry.”
She also farms flax, chia, black seed, dill, fennel, moringa and fenugreek.
The 28-year-old started the venture in 2018 after quitting employment at a private firm.
To start, she bought some cuttings of different herbs from a farmer in Nairobi, spending Sh6,000, and then propagated them on a small portion of land before transplanting them to the main field.
“I wanted to grow herbs for the export market initially, but I lacked funds to put up a greenhouse like other farmers,” recalls Laura, who now farms on three acres.
Her first crop performed well and she sold it to her friends and their neighbours and soon she started to get referrals.
“From this small market, I was able to make some Sh10,000 to Sh20,000 a month and this is what encouraged me to go commercial,” recalls the 2016 Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology mechatronics engineering graduate.
To farm the crops, she grows some in the nursery first on a bed whose soil is thoroughly mixed with crop and animal manure. The tiny plants are then transferred into nylon leaves. Cuttings are similarly grown in the sleeves first.
“Sometimes we also use coco peat as a growing media,” she says.
The plants are then watered early in the morning and late evening daily for at least two weeks.
Once planted on the farm, the crops are weeded after at least three weeks and thinned before harvesting starts at the third month.
“For perennials, each time we harvest, we cut them. Then remove the leaves (about 75 per cent) without stripping the skin of the branch and then wash the leaves and take them to dry.”
For seed herbs, Laura practises rotation by planting a crop of a different family at the portion she harvests the other.
“To harvest the crops, we cut the seed-bearing stalks with knives or running scissors then put them on a canvas to dry for two to three days. We then thresh them and winnow to separate the chaff and seed,” she says.
So where did she learn herb farming? “I read a lot online and from agricultural books. I usually get seeds from Amazon.com. Some of my parents’ friends in the United Kingdom also send me books on herbs.”
She uses the herbs to make beauty products such as hydrosols, shower gel, beeswax lip balms and butter while the dried ones end up as food products like herb tea.
“For food products, we dry the herbs and pack them in tiny bags. These are called herbal infusions. We blend the herbs for a specific health outcome, like improved immunity or detox,” says Laura.
In 2019, she won a Sh1 million-grant through Agri-biz, a programme funded by European Union, which she used to purchase machines such as a dryer, distiller and milling machine for value addition.
“I got another financial support from the EU through Kenya Climate Innovation Centre and I am now in the process of installing a solar powered dryer,” says Laura, who did a short value addition course at the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute.
Last year, she won a contract to supply ten tonnes of chia seeds every three months to one of the leading supermarkets. She now buys the produce from other farmers and supplies the retailer.
“Our business model is that when we place big orders for certain products, we contract other farmers who we teach them how to grow the herbs, help them dry and then package them,” states the farmer, who has employed four workers full-time and hires others when need arises.
She isolates pests like white flies, aphids and mites as some of the enemies of the crops.
“We intercrop different perennial herbs and spices with those susceptible to pests. For natural pesticides, we use plants like garlic, aloe vera, chillies, neem tree and some traditional crops around the farm. We also mix and boil their concoction and sprinkle on the plants to control aphids and mites,” explains Laura.
She plans to expand the acreage and train other farmers to grow herbs to meet the growing demand in local and export markets and in the long-term set up a value addition factory.
“Whatever venture you decide to specialise in and if you fail to start, don’t give up. Someday it will pay off,” says Laura, who also adds value to bananas and pawpaws that they farm.
Herbs are among the crops that Kenya exports to the European in bulk. The European Union and United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (Unido) runs the Market Access Upgrade Program (Markup) Kenya, which works with farmers to help them sell the produce abroad.
Markup’s Kenya national coordinator Maina Karuiru says there is growing demand for the herbs in local and international markets.
Dr Lusike Wasilwa, head of crop systems at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation says that herbs like other crops are susceptible to pests and diseases though they repel a number of them.
“One can use biological or botanical pesticides such as garlic and pepper to control pests such as aphids and mealybugs. Organic farming is encouraged when growing herbs and spices since the leaves are consumed thus chemicals should be used as a last option,” she says.
A farmer can also use agro-nets approved by Karlo at night to control the destructive insects and may open them during day-time to allow certain beneficial ones.
She says one can grow food crops alongside herbs like dhania as the smell of the later repels some of the pests.
“One can also use special soap approved by the Pharmacy and Poisons Board for use on horticultural crops. A farmer can also use an alcohol solution mixed with soap to control mealybugs (melts its shells and eradicate them,” advises the expert.
According to Dr Wasilwa, with the Covid-19 pandemic, demand for herbs and spices is growing as more people consume the crops to boost their immunity.