The sturdy-looking building with a light green roof fitted with wind-propelled air conditioners beckons from miles away, creating an image of a busy facility.
But on arrival, one is welcomed by abandonment, heavy overgrown vegetation around the compound, a locked gate, and total silence.
This is the Sh40 million Murungaru Cooling Plant in Nyandarua County constructed more than 10 years ago to provide potato and vegetable farmers here with a storage facility that would eliminate postharvest losses and end exploitation by brokers.
On entering the building, Mr Mwangi Kanina, the Ol Raragwai Cooperative Society chairperson, appears shocked.
“It appears the vandals were here again last night, those parked over there are parts of the underground coolers trapping the wind from outside to the cold rooms,” he says.
The cold storage is among other projects that were funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development in 2011, through the Agriculture Ministry, to promote agribusiness under the Small Holder Horticultural Market Programme.
“The society had 387 active members who were also the founder members by the time the cold storage was constructed in 2011. But it collapsed after the takeover of the facility by the first county government, promising to inject Sh200 million to equip the facility. That never happened, and it remained just a promise by the second county government regime,” said Mr Kanina.
But with the introduction of the potato contract farming in March this year when a potato consortium was formed, and handing back of the facility to the cooperative by the current county government, the facility has a new lease of life.
Optimistic farmers are returning in a bid to revive their cooperative society. Already, 150 members are benefiting from contract farming, while a larger number is on the waiting list.
The cold storage has eight offloading bays where potatoes and other vegetables are to be received and weighed. Next is the sorting section and two cold rooms with a capacity of 800 metric tons.
Mr Kanina explains that after construction of the facility, it was not installed with some equipment, then valued at Sh200 million, but feels that the facility can be operationalised with Sh20 million worth of equipment since Kinangop is a cold area, and underground wind collection tunnels are already installed. With such an upgrade, the cooling storage can store potatoes for more than a year waiting for markets to improve.
“The biggest challenge in Nyandarua is that we do rain-fed farming, also, all of us plant at the same time without proper market channels or a storage facility. If this facility is operationalised, it will help eliminate exploitative brokers since the farmers will have a place to store their produce, waiting for markets to improve. It normally takes two months for the potato market to stabilise after the peak season,” explains Mr Kanina.
Ms Mary Wambui, a potato farmer, has similar sentiments, saying that without streamlined market systems and cold storage, farmers were giving up on the crop due to exploitation by brokers.
“I started potato farming in 2002 and it was a rewarding venture, it was the only alternative after the collapse of dairy and pyrethrum industries in the 1980s. I had started with five acres but reduced the potato acreage to one acre last year. But with the contract farming introduced by the county government and new potato variety Markie, I have planted three acres for trial,” said the farmer.
By handing over the facility to the community, Mr Kanina says the members plan to lease the cold storage to the potato buyers at a small fee and will be used as a collection centre for the contracted farmers.
He adds that by encouraging contract farming, the county government has recognised the potato as a priority crop.