Farming has taken a new meaning in Kenya's Nyanza Province following the introduction of a crop that matures in less than 60 days.
Introduced in the region under the poverty eradication programme five years ago, the amaranth has seen local farmers abandon traditional crops such as maize, sugarcane, beans and millet to grow it. Locals say the crop is driving a revolution of sorts in the lake region, as some fishermen settle down to cultivate the crop. Its grains are milled and mixed with maize or wheat flour to make ugali or chapati, which are staple foods in the country, and can also be used in seasoning stew.
Researchers say the crop's nutritional and medicinal values include control of diabetes, skin diseases and bone maladies.
Dr Davidson Mwangi, who has researched on the crop, said its oil is used by the pharmaceutical industry in the manufacture of cosmetics. The crop, a native of South America, is mainly grown for its grain rather than for its leaves.
A kilogramme of amaranth grain sells at Sh50 (75 cents) in Nairobi. Farmers say an acre of land can produce about 16,000 kilogrammes of amaranth. The dream of striking it rich by growing the crop is driving a rapid change from tending traditional crops.
Ms. Perez Anyienda, one of the more than 80 farmers in Rongo who have uprooted their sugarcane and maize crops to plant amaranth, said she has been earning more than Sh30,000 per acre compared to the Sh8,000 she earned growing maize on the same piece of land. "With amaranth we only wait for 60 days to earn hard cash as opposed to sugarcane which takes more than 20 months to mature," she said.
The farmers, however, complained that like in the fishing industry, lack of milling machines in the area has exposed them to exploitation by middlemen who are paying them an average of Sh40 instead of Sh50 per kilogramme for the produce. The more than eighty farmers in Rongo have formed a union whose objective is to - among other things- ensure price stability and hunt for investors who can establish a milling plant in the locality.
Incas Amaranth Limited is one of the two companies that mill the crop. "We project that demand will soon outstrip supply," said Ms. Ruth Njeri, the proprietor of the milling plant located on Mombasa Road. She said the public was beginning to appreciate the nutritional value of the crop. "Farmers need to take it seriously as a mainstream crop if we are to meet demand," she said.
The Poverty Eradication Commission introduced the crop on a pilot scheme in Bondo in 2005, where 230 farmers were involved in its cultivation.Business Daily Africa