Why farmers are ditching maize to grow sunflower

They are meeting the moment as war drives sunflower oil prices up

In Summary

• Sunflower grows faster, is less labour-intensive and gives higher yields

Marystella Wabwoba packages sunflower oil in branded bottles at her homestead in Sinoko village, Bungoma county
Marystella Wabwoba packages sunflower oil in branded bottles at her homestead in Sinoko village, Bungoma county

When cooking oil and animal feed prices became too high for Kenyan farmer Marystella Wabwoba, she decided to produce her own. Today, sunflowers are all she grows.

"About five years ago, I realised I could grow sunflower on the farm and use it to produce oil, which has no chemicals as preservatives and use its byproduct to feed my animals," said the small-scale farmer.

Wabwoba's homestead in the village of Sinoko in Bungoma county is a flurry of activity, with a constant stream of customers coming to buy sunflower oil.

After harvesting the sunflower seed, she crushes them using an oil press to extract the oil, then uses the byproduct as feed for dairy animals, pigs and poultry. Wabwoba is also spreading word of her success in the surrounding community.

"Given that I'm an agricultural officer, I also mobilised women and youth groups and educated them on the need to venture into sunflower farming. A few bought the idea and embraced the venture," said Wabwabo, who has a PhD in food security and sustainable development.

"In an acre piece of land, you get at least 1,000 kilogrammes of sunflower seeds," Wabwoba explained.

"When you crush it, for every 4kg of sunflower seed cake, you get a litre of cooking oil. When you harvest 1,000kg of sunflower seeds, after crushing, you get 250 litres of sunflower cooking oil, translating to Sh100,000 per acre."

The farmer has a seven-acre piece of land on which she grows sunflowers, and from where she retails her oil.

"I sell a half litre of sunflower cooking oil at Sh400, five litres at Sh1,800, 10 litres at Sh3,500 (26.94) and 20 litres goes at Sh4,500."

Wabwoba not only grows her own sunflowers but is also involved in contract farming, buying in seed from other farmers in the community.

"I have another 20 farmers, each with an acre for growing sunflower. Last season, they produced 20,000 kilos of sunflower, which I bought from them at Sh100. After crushing, I got 5,000 litres of sunflower oil," she said.

Bungoma farmer Joyce Wamono grows sunflowers in Sirisia constituency. She sells the by-product of the oil she produces and says that for every 100kg of sunflower seeds, 75kg becomes by-product. She sells that at Sh70 per kilogramme.

Wamono said she previously grew maize. But it would take six months to mature, she said, and she would get only four 50kg bags, which could not sustain her needs. On the same piece of land, she now gets three times her previous income.

"We can plant sunflower, produce vegetable cooking oil and sell, then use the money we get to buy foodstuffs like maize and beans that we cannot produce in our small pieces of land," Wamono said.

She also explained that a sunflower crop is more drought-resistant and its oil has no cholesterol. It is recognised for helping in reducing non-communicable diseases like hypertension and cancer that people get by using chemically-preserved cooking oil, she added.

Besides Bungoma, sunflowers are also grown in Kakamega, Meru, Homa and Kajiado counties, as well as parts of the North Rift and Coastal region.

Vincent Wechabe, a sunflower farmer from Bumula constituency, said he abandoned sugarcane farming in favour of sunflower three years ago.

"I can't compare sunflower farming proceeds with sugarcane at all," he said.

"The (sugar mill) factory will give all farm inputs and you provide labour and after a two-year wait, on my five acre piece of land, out of the gross of Sh525,000, I used to get after selling cane to the factory, I would remain with Sh75,000. But with sunflower, I get a bumper harvest after 115 days."

Wechabe, also a livestock official in his county, said sunflower was previously relegated to a second-class crop and maize was prioritised as a first-class crop.

"The call now is to put sunflower in its right place of hierarchy and stop the notion that it's a second-class crop, if we want to solve the food insecurity situation in the country," he said.

Bilal Kweyu, an agronomist from Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, says for Kenya to be food secure, small-scale farmers should consider venturing into sunflower farming to streamline economic growth and improve the cash flow of many livelihoods of community members.

"Both the county and national governments should help smallholder farmers to make money through agribusiness and satisfy the growing population's food and nutritional needs," he said.

"There is a ready market for sunflower products. We need many farmers to venture into the business and create employment opportunities for our youth." 

Kweyu added that the country currently imports sunflower products from Tanzania and Malawi, but if local farmers are empowered, the money will go into their pockets to solve the food insecurity problem.

"You don't need to grow maize and wait for six months for it to mature and harvest 100 kilos of maize, yet you can grow sunflowers and harvest twice in six months, and use the money to buy food," he said.

bird story agency

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star