Chilli farmer shares his experience and advice after learning from failure
Brian Gustone just turned 27 and is counting losses amounting to hundreds of thousands of shillings from a failed chili farming attempt. Last year, the ambitious man set out to farm chillis, but the results were disastrous.
In 2015, he partnered with a friend to borrow a soft loan to venture into the chilli farming business. The two friends then used the acquired loan in addition to their savings to construct a greenhouse in an idle family land at the Embakasi Estate.
A capital of Ksh 100,000 enabled them to build a make shift greenhouse for chilli farming, purchase seeds and secure some of the agricultural tools needed for planting and harvesting. The greenhouse measuring 30 meters by eight meters made from locally available materials cost them Sh50, 000. A quality greenhouse would have made the duo dig deeper into their pockets for an extra Ksh 100 000. Constructing a greenhouse would provide protection from adverse climatic condition such as cold, wind, pests, diseases, and the scorching sun. The green house technology would further ensure that the plants develop in a controlled environmental condition to get optimum growth and productivity. Gustone enthusiasm for the chilli business was however cut short after a few months later when his friend-turned-business associate quit after their second harvest. He had taken his share from the harvest and relocated to Mombasa to work with the hospitality industry, an opportunity he had been eyeing for months.
Gustone was faced with the task of managing the subsequent production solely. A month into the struggle, his friend was not picking his calls. He had cut off every communication with Gustone leaving him the trouble of settling their loans, marketing and now repairing the worn out greenhouse structure.
He recalled of how his friend had enticed him into chili production with sweet talk on some of the successful farmers who had a ready market outside the country and were reaping millions from chilli farming. He swallowed this hook, line and sinker.
Gustone’s net profit rounded up to a meager Ksh 20,000 which could have not met the entire expense needed to stabilize his business. He was a troubled man. He confided in his solitude having felt ashamed of his first failure. He suffered depression and the family had to seek medical intervention from a leading mental institution in the country. That was another financial expense that prompted his family members had to hold a fund raising campaign to meet his medical bills.
Consulting the experts
After Gustone went through a series of guidance and counseling sessions, he has realized his mistakes and learnt great lessons from them the hard way and is using this experience to help other enthusiastic young farmers to learn from his failure.
In agribusiness, he says, it is important to take a calculated risk. Researching and consulting experts widely would help solve common problems faced by beginners. He says that, “chili production goes beyond eating a spicy sauce of a main dish served at your table, it involves going to the right people to obtain advice in financial planning, the agricultural aspects and identifying the target market that will save you from hawking at every place.” He regrets that he never consulted widely but only relied on the information provided by his friend. He recommends that one should find a successful farmer who has had an experience in the field and subsequently seek advice from an agricultural expert who will inform on the available market.
Have a plan
Gustone and his associate did not put their business plan into a proper detailed documentation. This would have helped them to maintain records as the business grew. A complete budget ensures that one keeps a realistic calculation on expenses that an agribusiness is likely to incur. Pesticides,farmtools,seeds and an estimated amount of other expenses that might occur are all budgeted for in such documents. “For one who would like to obtain credit from the bank, a clearly written budget plan solves half the problem,” says Gustone. If going into the venture with a partner, Gustone advises that there be a form of written agreement clearly stipulating the contributions of each of partner.
Growing the chillies
Growing chilies requires a warm environment of temperatures of 20-25 degree Celsius. They should not be in a position where the nightly temperature falls below 12 degree Celsius. Growth will also be inhibited if the day temperatures fall below 15 degree Celsius, this is because chili flourishes best in a tropical and a sub-tropical plant environment. In the Nairobi temperature, for a small scale farmer who would prefer growing chilies in pots, the months from June to November are highly recommended. These months have an average daytime temperatures of 23- 24 Celsius .Gustone got his timing right, and with chili taking a few weeks to grow and a few more others to ripen to red, a farmer can quickly get back the money he invested in the venture, while still making a handsome profit.
Chili farming flourishes best in a humid climate and a place with plenty of good lighting. This is why, according to Gustone, many farmers will invest in a greenhouse but will still closely monitor the temperatures of which the vegetable is being grown. A greenhouse can overheat very easily in the bright sun especially in the period from January to March where the temperatures are on the higher side. During these months, the farmer must check for condensation by providing ventilation in the green houses. Ventilation ensures circulation of air and an optimum temperature for the thriving of chilies.
Gustone attributes the collapse of his venture to worn out greenhouses. Excess rainfall sipped through the greenhouse and ruined the entire production.
“Greenhouse production requires constant temperatures and humidity control – around the clock. Make sure your Chili plants are in a position that receives a good amount of light,” he offers.
In large-scale professional greenhouse production, this is done with the help of technical equipment, which small farmers cannot afford. But farmers need to check temperature and humidity in small greenhouses.
Gustone advises that for a small scale farmer, there are always several suppliers ready to buy from such farmers. These suppliers have normally identified its market locally and abroad. Locally, chilli has its popularity among the Asian communities and at the Coastal region of Kenya. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands also form a ready market for Kenyan chillies.
Some suppliers like the Kandia Fresh Produce Suppliers buy directly from farmers and sells it to global markets. Since the exported chillies have to meet specified requirements, some of the suppliers will educate the farmers on the farming procedures. They counsel farmers on land preparation, crop management and harvesting to get the desired quality of produce. A kilogram of chili for the export market is averagely bought at Ksh 90 by suppliers and Ksh 80 for local consumption.
Greenhouse production is a major challenge as constructing a quality one requires one to have some huge amounts set aside for it.Constructing a meter squared costs about Ksh 180,000 and should last a period of ten years.Timber constructions are cheaper, around Ksh 100 000 for the same size but they are more prone to pest attacks. Putting up a wooden structure is also technically more demanding, and termites, wind resistance and durability of the polythene are usually a problem. The polythene sheeting needs changing every 2 to 3 years. A pesticide-reduced greenhouse means that growers must practice good sanitation and pest management methods from the very start. A key element must be rotation, which means that a wide range of crops will have to be cultivated in the greenhouse.
Chili farming also requires good management. This includes the use of resistant varieties and biological pesticides that are allowed in organic production, such as insecticidal soaps, botanicals (neem products, tephrosia, pyrethrum etc.), and mineral-based pesticides (mainly sulphur and copper based).The advantage of chili farming though is that it has a chemical composition that tends to ward off most pests.
Gustone hopes that his failed story will act as a guideline to any young person who wants to go into farming. He has also learned important lessons and is currently gathering enough resources to start another chili venture. This time however, he is sure to succeed.