What you need to know:
- Once an errand girl for businesswomen in Meru, Nkatha, 38, is one of the leading sorghum agents for the Kenya Breweries Limited (KBL).
- Residents of Mukothima in Tharaka North reckon that climate change has led to crop failure in their locality for several consecutive seasons.
- Due to the guaranteed market, banks have come in offering credit and of late insurance firms are actively selling policies to the small farmers to ensure that in case of crop failure, they get compensated.
Beatrice Nkatha is unhurried and quiet as she works in the store at Mukothima trading centre in Tharaka.
Only her occasional hums of a popular tune breaks the monstrous silence to betray her presence in the store packed to the roof with bags of sorghum.
She needs that concentration to ensure that all bags of sorghum are well-covered and that there is no slight evidence of rat invasion or wetness on the floor and walls, which could indicate rise of humidity to compromise the safety of the cereal.
Once an errand girl for businesswomen in Meru, Nkatha, 38, is one of the leading sorghum agents for the Kenya Breweries Limited (KBL).
She has won several awards, one in 2012 and another this year as the most improved agent while the Ministry of Agriculture recognised her role in contributing to food security and poverty reduction.
She has also been recognised for her efforts in mobilising women and youth at the grassroots to improve food production, raise household incomes and promote gender equity.
“I grew cotton for 11 years but every season I became poorer than the previous one. I joined Nkatha, planted and sold the first harvest in 2010 and in three months I pocketed over Sh100,000. From then on my life changed for the better,” says Njeru Muthengi, a farmer who earned Sh400,000 in 2013 from his two acres.
He has investments in real estate worth Sh2 million and has educated his children up to college level from sorghum money.
Residents of Mukothima in Tharaka North reckon that climate change has led to crop failure in their locality for several consecutive seasons.
“Last short rains lasted three days instead of three months meaning that there is no maize harvest this year,” says Judith Mwende, the chair of the Tharaka Cereals Growers Association.
In spite of 100 per cent crop failure in maize, vegetables, bananas, cowpeas, cassava and millet this season, her 400 members still harvested a total of 162,000 metric tonnes of sorghum with the least earning Sh35,000 while the average incomes reached Sh100,000.
“Tharaka Nithi did not have a cash crop but sorghum is now the gold of this region,” insists Judith counting other benefits such as increased family income and job creation for hundreds of youths and women, in the semi-arid region that is home to 356,000 people, according to the last national census report.
She attributes the farmers’ changing fortunes to growing sorghum and selling to Nkatha.
Born in Tharaka South, Nkatha lost her father at an early age and dropped out of school in Standard Eight just before sitting KCPE.
She later worked for businesswomen selling horticultural produce and cereals between Meru, Embu and Nairobi for a pay of Sh30 a day. Her work involved carrying small luggage or to watch over their goods in the market or during transit.
“I learnt to be alert, memorise details and be honest,” she recounts recalling that she would also be tasked to carry huge sums of money since no one would suspect her.
It was during the work that her interest in business grew as she saw the profits her employer was making.
“She would buy a kilo of sorghum at Sh2 and sell at Sh8. I swore to engage in a similar business but offer farmers better prices.”
NURTURED THE DREAM
Nkatha, now a mother of one high school child and owner of two tractors worth Sh6 million and a building at the local trading centre, nurtured the dream.
Convinced that there was potential in sorghum, she rented farms and started planting and taking her produce direct to the market.
Neighbours realised she was offering better prices and they started selling their produce to her. When the number increased, she formed Sorghum Pioneers Agency (SPA), which now has over 9,000 small out-growers.
“Farmers are paid Sh27 per kilo and the money comes in time.” It is after the KBL came in as the main buyer that the World Food Programme and other international agencies followed suit.
Due to the guaranteed market, banks have come in offering credit and of late insurance firms are actively selling policies to the small farmers to ensure that in case of crop failure, they get compensated.
According SPA records, over 40 per cent of farmers are able to earn Sh100,000 per harvest. This year SPA members sold 2,000 metric tonnes of sorghum to KBL.
Nathan Gitonga who sold 550kg from his three acres says “sorghum is bringing us together and people learn from each other”.
Mukothima community is also proud to have paid Sh450,000 cess this year to the county government.
However, while life has improved for farmers, challenges have emerged. The government increased excise duty on keg beer raising its price from Sh25 to Sh80 per mug. This has thrown the industry into confusion as farmers fear the boom that has existed for a few years would collapse. KBL notes that demand for keg beer has gone down due to the tax, thus, they cannot take in more sorghum.
Nkatha is hopeful that things will not take a nasty turn, and that the government will listen to their cry.
“The government should remove the duty to allow the Tharaka people to enjoy earnings from sorghum that has become the driver of their economy. No any other cereal grows well here.”