A former high school teacher in Manyatta, Embu county, has made a fortune constructing improvised greenhouses.
Owing to the high costs of setting up conventional greenhouses, Raphael Njiru decided to make his own using locally available materials — timber and poles.
After graduating with a diploma in Wildlife Management in 2006, Njiru started working as an untrained high school agriculture teacher.
“But a meagre Sh6,000 salary could not cater for my needs. After a two-year stint in teaching, I decided to venture into farming to make ends meet. I planted 300 stems of tomatoes in my backyard that did not do well,” says the 35-year-old father of two.
The harsh humid conditions in the area resulted in poor yields. “Controlling diseases like bacterial wilt and pests was expensive and difficult because pests were migrating from neighbouring bushes to my tomato plot,” Njiru says.
In 2011, Njiru decided to borrow a leaf from a neighbour who had a flourishing greenhouse. He was introduced to the Ambiance Irrigation Services, a farm input firm that specialises in construction of greenhouses.
“I was unable to raise enough capital for a steel structure greenhouse so I opted for an affordable improvised greenhouse.”
Njiru constructed a greenhouse measuring 30 metres by eight metres from locally available materials provided by the firm at cost of Sh50, 000.
He borrowed the money from a bank. Within a year, Njiru started to realise profits from this venture.
Growing tomatoes in the greenhouse enabled him to save on pesticides and crop protection chemicals.
“Tomatoes are highly susceptible to diseases and pests. They require frequent application of pesticides, but growing them under a greenhouse minimises this. Most of the common pests and diseases that invade plants are kept at bay,” Njiru says.
To improve his skills, Njiru took part in a training organised by scientists from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation in Thika, on greenhouse management practices. “This training was a key turning point in my venture as they taught me the most important skills on managing greenhouses from land preparation to soil testing,” he says.
Njiru practices nutrient management through soil testing to analyse the type and amount of fertiliser required to achieve optimal yields.
“I collect soil samples using zigzag or diagonal methods that I take to Kalro offices in Nairobi for testing.”
David Gitari, an extension officer from the Department of Agriculture in Embu, says soil testing helps a farmer to determine the right type of fertiliser to use for higher yields and to determine presence of soil diseases.
Njiru says good greenhouse practices have enabled him to get high yields. “My first Cora zone F1 tomato harvest did very well… A single greenhouse produced seven tonnes of tomatoes from 1,000 hybrid tomato plants… I sold them at Sh40 per kilo at the Embu market.”
He would later use the skills he gained to construct three other greenhouses on his farm and for farmers in the region. “Although the initial capital was high, I gained skills on how to construct fully operational greenhouses and manage them,” he says.
Since 2012, he has trained more than 500 farmers.
“Although I started small, my network has grown steadily because I have trained farmers coming from as far as Eldoret, Nyeri and Meru,” he says.
Njiru works closely with the area agricultural extension officer to train farmers to embrace the technology that is turning the fortunes of farmers.
“The good thing with our greenhouse is that a farmer can start small depending on his financial ability and expand it later,” he says.
His greenhouses can last for at least five years with little maintenance since poles and timber are first treated with wood preservative to protect them from termites.
“I ensure that poles are firm in the ground using concrete to guarantee the structure a life span of over five years,” Njiru explains.
Unlike conventional greenhouses, which are uniform in size, Njiru designs and constructs his structures according to weather pattern of different areas. “The heights are longer in hot areas and we use normal roofing heights for cold areas.”
With the earnings from his venture, Njiru comfortably feeds and educate his family “I have also bought a piece of land where I wants to relocate my demonstration centre. I have also employed two people paying them Sh600 per day,” he says.
So what are his future plans? “Since greenhouse farming is quickly gaining traction and its adoption is steadily increasing, I am optimistic to become a top manufacturer of locally-made greenhouses in a span of three years.”