BEAUTY DISCOVERED IN AZOLLA FARMING

Mary Ikigu holding azolla plants.
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Promising Azolla plant boost to livestock farmers in search of cheap feeds

By Joseph Macharia

Due to skyrocketing prices of animal feeds especially supplements,   farmers are turning to azolla as a sustainable source of protein. Mary Ikiguis one of the farmers who have embraced azolla to improve her enterprise. She is from Limuru.  Besides farming indigenous vegetables and poultry, Ikigu also creates content for her YouTube channel dedicated to farming. Her passion for farming runs deep.

After high school studies, she joined Kabete Technical College (  which is now Kabete National Polytechnic ) in 2014 to pursue a diploma in co-operative management. Once through with her college studies ,  she got employed by a microfinance institution. While at the job,  she quickly came to realize she wasn’t satisfied with it. Her real interests lay elsewhere.

To try and find her footing in the world, she tried her hand in online writing. She did some online writing jobs but still she was  not happy. “I was not content; I wanted to do better, something that would bring me satisfaction,” she stoically asserted.

Rebirth

All along,  she was interested in farming but she wasn’t sure how she would make a living out of it. “Agriculture has been something that I was into since early days. Farming is my passion even though I didn’t take it in college,” she added.

As she did online writing, she did farming on the sides as pastime or a pet project. She started with mushrooms and indigenous vegetables. Gradually,  her farming started thriving generating some cash. But what really made her consider farming as a full time endeavour was the contentment it brought her.

Eventually , she kept poultry. Like any other livestock farmer, cost of feeds started becoming high, hence  hurting her farming venture. Mulling whether to continue or abandon her poultry  enterprise  altogether, by sheer luck,  a friend introduced her to azolla plant. This was in 2021.

The plunge

Ikigu developed interest immediately and resolved to learn all she could about this new plant. So she attended some training where they were taught how to plant azolla, harvesting and maintenance of ponds. The training inspired her to start azolla farming.

In late 2022 , she bought seeds from a nearby farm and started propagating in her farm in one pond. Today,  she has  to six ponds which exceed her poultry needs. “I started azolla because I wanted to reduce costs of feed for my poultry,” Ikigu shared.

She sells the surplus at Kshs. 1000 per kilogram. Since Limuru is quite cold, her harvests vary with the prevailing weather. “It depends on the weather, when it’s warm,  I can harvest up to 30 kilograms  in a month,” she notes.

After her first encounter with azolla, she decided to enlighten farmers through creating video content about azolla farming. Besides, she also organizes and trains farmers about azolla. Her dedicated effort to create awareness about azolla has seen her nominated in the Afri-Glo Women Choice Awards in the ‘Agripreneur of the year’ 2024 category.

Azolla

Azolla is a fast-growing aquatic fern that floats in shallow ponds. It has long been used in Asia and some parts of Africa to feed animals. It is hailed as theworld’s cheapest source of protein. Owing to its high rate of growth coupled with its high quality protein, azolla has sparked massive interest from livestock farmers  world over. What is  more,  it doesn’t require huge spaces for cultivation like other sources of protein; for instance  soya beans.

“Since I started farming azolla the experience has been good despite heavy rains,” she said. Azolla are sensitive to extremely cold or hot temperatures – they thrive in moderate weather.  “When it’s too hot or cold they are affected and turn to red,” she added.

Benefits

One, azolla farming is low-cost. “It is cheap to grow and requires minimal management once the pond is constructed,” she explained. The major cost in azolla farming is setting up a pond. After that, a farmer will only require to add manure periodically and change water.

Secondly, Azolla is not only rich in proteins,  but also amino acids, vitamins(vitamin A, B12 and Beta Carotene) as well as essential minerals. Additionally, Azolla has low lignin content making it easily digestible by animals. Thus it’s an ideal supplement for farmers rearing pigs, chickens, geese and dairy animals. “Azolla farming is profitable because since I started using it to feed my chicken,  it has reduced my feed cost by half,” she said.

A shade net covering azolla ponds.

Actually feeding azolla toanimals boosts production. Among  birds,  it has been observed that it contributes to increase in weight of broiler chicken and similarly improves egg production for layers. When azolla is mixed with other feeds and given to dairy animals like cows and goats, it increases milk yield by  fifteen to twenty   percent.

Unlike soya beans, as a source of protein, azolla can be used directly from the garden since it does not have to be roasted. All it requires is to be left in a shade to dry for a few minutes before being fed to animals.

Further, azolla grows really fast. “Once introduced in a pond,  it will only take less than two weeks for it to cover the whole area depending with the amount of seeds,” Ikigu remarked. From  there,  a farmer can harvest azolla plants for the next  ten  years.

Azolla helps to fix atmospheric nitrogen and stores it in leaves hence used as green manure. For rice farmers, azollahas  the  capacity of forming a thick layer on water surfaces, doubly aiding in weed control as well as slowing down evaporation rate. As a result, it helps farmers use less water in rice production lowering cost of production.Azolla has another unique  advantage directly related to humans. It restricts the  mosquito breeding process. In fact, azolla is also referred as a “mosquito fern.”

Requirements

To start azolla farming you need a small space, a dam liner, shade-net, source of water, manure and azolla seeds.The dam liner is used to hold water. A standard pond measures  two by  eight metres, large scale farmers can customize their ponds. It’s dug about  two  feet deep in the ground and filled up to one  foot   level so as to accommodate rain water.

One  should  replace a third of the water volume with fresh water at least once every two weeks and complete water in the pond once in every six months.

The  net helps to provide shade since azolla does not like direct sunlight. Azolla requires  thirty  percent sunlight preferable under tree shades. It feeds on manure (cow dung or animal droppings). It  also  fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere.

Azolla plant growing in a pond.

Harvesting

After setting up your pond, you introduce azolla seeds. Depending on the amount of the seeds, it will take about two weeks before it replicates to cover the whole pond. Thereafter, you can harvest one kilogram daily to avoid overcrowding. Instead, a farmer can harvest a sizable portion as he  sees fit and leave  the rest to continue replicating.

Harvesting azolla is not complicated. You can use a sieve or a piece of cloth. Scoop the desired amount from the pond, wash it to remove dirt then put it under a shade to allow it to dry. Some people grind it to powder form to be used in future.  When it’s dry , you can store it up to two years as long as it kept in a cool dry condition.

Way forward

“I would advise youths to venture into agribusiness   because it’s an activity that can pay your bills, while  food is a basic  need,” she said adding  that  anyone can venture  into   agribusiness and make a good living in it.

Ikigu’s future plan is to expand beyond azolla and poultry farming. “I would like to establish my current  enterprise   to become   a demo farm  that  will   inspire farmers especially youths on benefits of smart agribusiness,”she ended with a lot of hope.

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