Tired of poor rains, Meru farmers go for hardy sunflower

Sabina Muriira at work in their one acre sunflower piece of land at Kinyoo, Imenti Central. © Peter Muthomi

Farming in this era of climate change has become like playing lottery. You plant a seed, but there are no guarantees that you will harvest the crop because the rains are so erratic. With that reality, a women group has wisenened up. “We were all fed up of planting crops year after year and getting nothing because the rains did not come, or it was too little. We sat down and vowed not to let the bad weather prevent us from leading a decent life,” says Sabina Murira the chair of the women group in Central Imenti Meru County. An NGO shared with them the prospects of sunflower farming. “Unlike other crops that are weather-dependent, we were told that sunflower survives in dry areas and the returns are good. Growing it is also very easy especially if we are to form into groups,” says Murira. To get the ball rolling, the women agreed to come together as a group comprising 35 members with each person ‘donating’ half an acre for sunflower growing. The hot sun and loose fertile soil in the area is perfect for sunflower growing.

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Warm weather
Murira says sunflower seedlings are tolerant to frost until the six leaf stage, after which they require warm conditions up to the flowering stage. Salome Raria and Salome Gaiti are members of the group who work at their farms and the group’s farm to ensure they have good harvests to sustain their families. “In a good season, we can harvest up to 500kgs from one acre. We bought an oil processing machine at Sh760, 000 which hasa capacity to process 100kgs per day,” said Mrs Raria. Their oil processor which is built next to their farm also produces livestock and poultry feeds. To meet the volumes of oil the processor produces they have to buy oil from other farmers. “We do not get enough sunflowers to process so were are forced to buy it from other farmers who are not our members, at Sh30 a kilo,” says Murira.

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The group leases land from residents, at Sh8, 000 an acre, so that they can grow more sunflower. The oil they make is cheaper than the established brands, which attracts more buyers.  “We sell the oil at Sh200 a litre and Sh100 for half a litre,” she says. “We also produce grease that we sell to traders who operate machines and do repairs,” she adds. Process of making the oil But how do they make the oil? According to shellingmachine.com, there are several processes involved in the processing of sunflower seeds into oil. First step is cleaning and sorting of the seeds.

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In most instances, the oil seeds are passed over magnets to remove the trace metal before de-hulled; and passed the special cleaning machine to remove other foreign matters. The next step is de-hulling, which is optional. This is basically removing all other impurities. The next stage is grinding. Here the de-hulled seeds are grounded into coarse meal of proper consistency by mechanized grooved rollers or hammer mills. Then the meal is heated to facilitate the oil extraction. While during oil pressing, some impurities are also released with the oil, and they should be removed before the oil can be edible. Next stage is pressing: The heated meal is then fed continuously into a screw press, which increases the pressure progressively as the meal passes through a slotted barrel. Other steps include removing solvent traces, refining the oil and finally packing the oil. To ensure the business is sustainable, they give 100 per cent commitment. “None of us is employed so we have a lot of time in our hands to concentrate in our farms. We divide roles according to age and physical fitness,” says Murira.

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One of the challenges they face is the high cost of fertiliser. A 50kg bag of NPK fertiliser costs Sh1,800 at the depot and Sh2,500 at agrovet shops. A bag only covers one acre so we need a lot of fertiliser. The cost is a heavy burden, it eats into our profit magins,” says Raria. They also hae to deal with predators. “Birds are also a big nuisance. They love to attack our crops from planting to harvesting. But we ensure that some members are always there to scare them away. We put ribbon like scare crows all over the farm to scare them away,” Murira says. Despite the odds against them, the farmers are soldiering on.

Phares Mutembei

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.