For only Sh2, I’ll grow you the best seedlings

Sanjay Malde, the owner of Plant Raisers, tends to his seedlings at the firm in Isinya, Kajiado County. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL

What you need to know:

  • Today, Plant Raisers is worth about Sh30 million with 15 employees and has a propagation unit of 2,000 square metres with a capacity of over 20 million seedlings a year. In a week, Malde sells over 320,000 seedlings and supplies over 100 different varieties of vegetable seedlings.

Sanjay Malde has been in business for a long time to know when to quit or continue with a venture.

So when his gut feeling told him in early 2010 that it was time to quit the textile business, he did exactly that.

After months of research, Malde decided to try his hand in agriculture. He had seen a gap in vegetable seedlings, which he decided to fill using his company Plant Raisers, which he set up in May 2010.

With a starting capital of Sh10 million, he hired one-acre of land in Isinya, Kajiado, put up 480 square metres of a greenhouse and hired four employees.

He also used the money to buy the equipment such as plastic trays which he uses to grow the seedlings.

Today, Plant Raisers is worth about Sh30 million with 15 employees and has a propagation unit of 2,000 square metres with a capacity of over 20 million seedlings a year. In a week, Malde sells over 320,000 seedlings and supplies over 100 different varieties of vegetable seedlings.

“We buy certified vegetable seeds of all varieties from companies like Kenya Highlands, Simlaw Seeds and Amiran for propagation. Some farmers also bring seeds for us to propagate for them at Sh2 per seed. However, most farmers rely on us to give them the seedlings,” he says.

A farmer runs the risk of up to 30 per cent germination failure rate when they use conventional methods of growing vegetables from seeds. Seeds grown using modern technology in greenhouses have a germination rate of between 85 to 90 per cent.

Seedlings grown in greenhouses also have a bigger root mass, which makes the plants stronger and lowers their chances of dying.

“We have our own growing media, which includes a cocopit mixture locally available, mixed with our secret formulae that helps us achieve 90 to 95 per cent germination rate for hybrid seeds and 80 to 90 per cent germination rate for the open-pollinated varieties seeds,” says Malde.

He specialises in producing seedlings for tomatoes, cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, pepper (hot and sweet), onions, and cucurbits, among others.

It normally takes four weeks for tomato, cabbage, broccoli, watermelon, kales and spinach seedlings to be ready for transplanting. Onions take about five weeks while hot and sweet peppers seven weeks.

Watering of the seedlings depends entirely on the weather.

“We arrange delivery to Nairobi, but upcountry order deliveries are normally made through a courier service for our clients who cannot come to Nairobi,” says Malde.

Many farmers growing seeds using conventional methods have poor germination. For example, a single plant of hybrid tomatoes yields about 4kg.

When a farmer plants 10,000 crops, he expects 40 tonnes of tomatoes. However, because he has used the conventional method of planting, he loses 30 per cent of the seeds, which is 3,000 plants, which means 12 tonnes of tomatoes are lost.

Therefore, instead of harvesting 40 tonnes of tomatoes, he harvests 28 tonnes, which translates to a loss of Sh240,000 going by the current average market price of tomatoes.

“However, with seed propagation, if a farmer gives us 10,000 seeds, he will get 10,000 seedlings with a promise of 99 per cent germination rate. For my seedlings, I charge at least Sh4 each (depending on the variety), which will cost the farmer Sh40,000 against a loss of Sh240,000 if he plants the seeds directly,’’ says Malde.

Specialised care for seedlings is no longer a preserve of large-scale farmers, says Madle. “It has also become a necessity for small-scale farmers, who want to guarantee maximum germination rates. This is particularly important if unnecessary crop failure is to be avoided.”

While most farmers have embraced the new technology of using seedlings vis a vis direct planting of seeds, many continue to experience dismal harvests.

“Many Kenyan farmers want to plant tomatoes this season, and then capsicum the next season. Most don’t understand the value of crop rotation. You cannot rotate plants of the same family like tomatoes and pepper or capsicum. Farmers need to learn the art of crop rotation,” he says.

It is for this reason that Malde resorted to offering before and after sales services to farmers who had the best seedlings but with the worst crop yields.

“The greatest challenge facing farmers is that they do not have enough information, especially regarding the basic, initial steps of farming such as soil and water analysis. We have been helping farmers.”

The first question Malde asks a farmer is, “Have you ever done farming before? And if they have practised farming, the next question would be, what did you plant?

“We like to know the history of their farms so that we can do a soil analysis. Many farmers will plant tomatoes for two or three years and the soil goes bad. That is why we need a soil and water analysis because we want farmers to achieve success. Afterwards, we will know which variety of seedlings we can give them,” he says.

Malde also teaches farmers what he calls ‘smart farming’ which involves how to stagger their crops to achieve consistency and make more money.

“If a farmer comes to me and asks for 20,000 seedlings, I ask them why that number. This is because a farmer will plant 20,000 seedlings but where will he sell them? Does he have the market? Smart farming includes planting weekly and monthly to avoid waste, and to allow farmers to sustain produce throughout the year,” he says.

Plant Raisers also does trial planting for seed companies on its five-acre field to assess different varieties of vegetable seeds.

Earlier last week, the farm hosted over 100 farmers for an exhibition to learn about various varieties of seedlings.

Although he does not divulge details of how much he makes, Malde says that farming is a lucrative business.