From Routine Farming to Business Farming

Published on 27th May 2008

Mr Mburu at his macadamia farm

In 1968, when Mr. Mburu, whose other name is Maendeleo (Swahili for development), ventured into farming, he did not know that he would stand out as a model farmer in the Kaburugi village of Kandara Division, Murang’a South District. His was a humble beginning of what he referred to as tradition. Four decades from the onset, Mr. Mburu does not see his practice as a tradition anymore. It is a business that has to be managed, marketed and handled with care to reap maximum yields and profits. When taking participants of the Pan African Workshop on Service Delivery to Smallholder farmers on a field tour, Anthony Odeo of The African Executive talked to Mr. Mburu and filed this story.

When and how did you begin farming?

I began farming when I was a young child. Since my parents had land to till, we all grew up tilling our land and naturally became farmers by default. It was also our community’s tradition to grow food for the family because we did not believe in borrowing or hunting to get food. But as I worked hard on the farm, I realized that all the energies I spent in it bore a lot of fruit whose sole beneficiary was my dad. I therefore resolved to acquire my own land so that I could own the yields and make my life better.

Did owning your own land help you achieve your dream?

Well, since land was not as expensive as it is today, I acquired a piece of  without struggle. I became so excited because I knew I would make more money and become rich. To my surprise, the same maize variety that did so well on my dad’s farm could not do well on my own farm. After spending a year on the farm alone, it became apparent that I needed the support of both my family and friends. Out of the twenty-acre piece of land, I could only manage to cultivate one or two acres and the yield wasn’t as good as my dad’s farm. It was then that I decided to seek advice from my family and other experienced farmers in our neighborhood.

What was their advice and how did you implement it?

Their ideas were varied and interesting. With the help of a friend who was a teacher, we were able to evaluate the different ideas I had received from the other farmers. I implemented what I could afford like purchasing coffee seedlings and shelved the rest that I could not afford at the time like purchasing of dairy cattle. On their advice, I subdivided the land into different sections, each for a specific purpose. During the implementation process, my newly wed wife played a major role in helping make decisions about our land. However, we did not treat it as a business entity but as a practice that could make us famous and rich.

How and what changed your perception to see farming as business and not otherwise?

It took quite a long time to start thinking otherwise, because I had spent fifteen years tilling the land as a tradition, keeping a herd of cattle like any other farmer and ensuring our granary had enough food for the family. It was until one evening while talking to fellow farmers at a village gathering that I got to know of the existence of a local farmer’s group within this village. The group membership benefited from government on among others, subsidized farm inputs, professional advice on crop care, cultivation and proper use and tillage of land. The idea was exciting and I chose to join the group. Within the first year of my membership, I had gained a lot of service provision that I did not have before. For instance, I knew where to get subsidized fertilizer and seeds. I discovered the untapped potential within my reach.

What practical difference can you draw from your current farm in relation to what you used to have?

I wish you were there to see my farm two decades ago; it was not even a shadow of what I have now. I did not understand where to grow the coffee and where to put the bananas, neither did I know that I could also keep chicken for sale and for eggs. But through the advice from the other farmers and support from Syngenta East Africa through farm visits and proper product use, I can harvest and keep the yield safely without fearing the presence of pests, I am able to determine at what price to sell my products for me to plough back my input and earn profit, and I am also a dairy farmer. The practical approach to farming that I’ve gained from this group has changed fortunes for me so much that I do not have to struggle and till the farm. I employ people who do the work. All I do is oversee every process to ensure the required standards are fully adhered to.

What challenges do you face as a businessman?

In any position, challenges will always be expected, but how one handles them is the ultimate determinant. I take challenges as an opportunity to create an escape route. I also use challenges to gauge my performance against the rest. For instance, the current influx in farm inputs has enabled me to keep a reserve for price influxes. On food prices, I am able to not only get most of what I need for food from my farm but have also increased cultivation of food crops and maximize on animal produce to earn more money to pay for the deficit.

What would be your message to smallholder farmers?

They need to understand that they have the power to feed the world and therefore they should not feel irrelevant in the current world food crisis. They also have to know that farming has a lot of wealth when if  done in the right way with reference and consultation from the right channels. African smallholder farmers do not have to be poor, they have all it takes to become billionaires.  

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