What you need to know:
- Before this, Kiruhi used to pick the nettle leaves from the Aberdare Forest in Nyeri and along River Ngobit. He would then dry them before milling and packing for sale.
- According to the Kenya Bureau of Standards, which certified the product in 2009, the processed nettle can last for two years if well-dried and kept in a moisture-free area.
- The harvesting is done in a three-week interval to allow for more shooting to a period of three months before pruning is done.
When Seeds of Gold team visited him in his farm last week, David Kiruhi was wearing protective gear, plucking the leaves of the nettle plant, which grows wild along the river banks and in the forests in many parts of the country.
And the short rainy season ensured the development of lush leaves that made his farm conspicuously green. Kiruhi has been growing the crop, also known as the stinging plant, for the last six years.
Before this, Kiruhi used to pick the nettle leaves from the Aberdare Forest in Nyeri and along River Ngobit. He would then dry them before milling and packing for sale.
The powder nettle is mixed with porridge flour. It is also used to prepare mukimo, a popular meal in central Kenya made from mashed potatoes, maize and beans. Some people also use the powder as a beverage to prepare tea as well as to flavour foods such as rice.
Laikipia residents mainly grow wheat, maize and onions but Kiruhi made the nettle his cash crop, yet the plant is not your usual cup of tea. He has never looked back.
Urtica dioica, commonly known as the African stinging nettle, sends a sore chilling sensation when it comes into contact with the human body.
Indeed in the olden days, some parents used to punish their naughty children by rubbing on them the leaves of the vicious plant.
So how did this Laikipia farmer fall in love with this offensive crop?
Kiruhi wa Thabai (Kiruhi, the stinging nettle farmer) as he is popular known, brought the idea from Japan where he had travelled on a fellowship to learn how man can reap rewards from the environment without damaging it.
“When I sowed the seeds on my farm, many were mocking me saying I was wasting time since the plant was readily available along the river banks. However, that did not kill my dream since I had already smelt good money,” a cheerful Kiruhi says.
And the buyers came in droves. He now supplies local markets and major supermarkets in Nyeri, Karatina, Nyahururu, Nairobi and Nanyuki.
With the growth of the market, Kiruhi soon expanded his nettle farm from one acre to five.
To grow the crop, Kiruhi sows the seeds in shallow furrows with a spacing of four inches from one plant to the next and half-a-metre from one furrow to the other.
He says he hardly uses inorganic fertiliser in his farm but relies on decayed plant leaves and stalks for manure.
“Stinging nettle farming is inexpensive since the plant is not affected by diseases. We just let the plant to grow to a height of 2ft from the ground to avoid soil splashing on the leaves during the rainy seasons and making it easier for weeding and pruning.”
Kiruhi irrigates his farm with water from River Ngobit during the dry spells, thus ensuring a bumper harvest throughout the year. He adds that he prunes his crop at the beginning of every rainy season to allow new leaves to sprout to maintain his market standards.
According to Kiruhi, the nettle plant reaches maturity after one year. Thereafter, he picks three to four healthy green leaves from every plant for the best grade for his customers.
The harvesting is done in a three-week interval to allow for more shooting to a period of three months before pruning is done.
After harvest, the nettle leaves are kept under a shade inside the house for six days for desiccation (loss of water) to occur at a slow pace.
The dried leaves are later milled into powder which he packs depending on the market needs.
Kiruhi says that he hires the miller who crushes dried nettle at a cost of Sh15 per kilo, thereafter, he packs the product depending on the customers’ needs.
Some 5kg of fresh leaves produces one kilo of powdered nettle. In all, his farm yields an average of 1.2 tonnes of processed nettle per year.
“I pack my products in 50g to 500g packets branded Neto depending on the customer’s need. I usually sell the nettle large-scale because there are good returns,” says the farmer, who makes over Sh1 million in a year.
The plant is also good as animal feed, Kiruhi says. “We sell one kilo of grade one nettle at Sh600 and Sh200 for the lower grades, which is mainly used as animal feeds.”
Nyandarua-Laikipia Dairy Multipurpose Cooperative Society field veterinary surgeon Dr Richard Muraya says animals with loose leg joints and those suffering from arthritis are given nettle plant to restore their health.
He adds that the powdered nettle is mixed with regular animal feeds. “You can boil the plant’s stalks and leaves and give the animal the juice or you let the plant to wither and feed your animal. It is very rich with calcium which is essential to the dairy cows.”
The farming venture has created employment to local people who work on his farm as casuals for pruning, weeding, picking and packaging at an average cost of Sh40,000 per month.
LASTS FOR YEARS
According to the Kenya Bureau of Standards, which certified the product in 2009, the processed nettle can last for two years if well-dried and kept in a moisture-free area.
Herbalists have become his frequent customers in recent years, Kiruhi says, owing to the plant’s nutritional and medicinal value. Dr Willis Wanjala of Makini Herbal Clinic says the nettle plant has iron, vitamin, calcium and carbohydrates.
“The nettle is used to cure a range of diseases such as arthritis and tuberculosis, as well as flashing out bladder infections and stopping excessive menstruation in women.”
“The nettle roots are used to manage the enlargement of prostate, medically called benign prostatic hyperplasia while the leaves enhance the excretion of the body waste through kidneys.”
Far from the scepticism witnessed when he embraced the plant, Kiruhi says more locals have joined him to register a self-help group called Neto World.
“We are planning to start a nettle growing cooperative to incorporate more farmers.” Kiruhi is currently researching on the feasibility of making herbal soap and pain-killer drugs from the nettle plants.