Focused couple joins hands in starting a family business that has changed their fortunes
By Paul Kamau
Food, just like clothing and shelter is a basic need. This is aptly captured by Brenda Schoepp’s words: “My grandfather used to say that once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher. But every day, three times a day, you need a farmer.” In order to thrive in farming, we need to engage in effective environmental conservation and avoid the culture of waste. Rosemary Gathage Oyugi, the founder of Steroke Farm in Mang’u , Kiambu County is a good example of how farmers can reap a lot of benefits by engaging in environmental conservation. Steroke is an acronym of Stephen Oyugi(her husband), Rose and their daughter Keisha.
Going down memory lane
Mrs. Oyugi was born and brought up in Rumuruti, Laikipia County where she attended both her primary and secondary schools. While growing up, farming was the main economic activity of her family. She therefore gained a lot of skills in farming at a tender age. Apparently, she did not have an idea that those skills would come in handy later in life. After graduating with a master’s degree in health systems from Coventry University in the United Kingdom (UK), she secured a job at Aga Khan Universityhospital as an accountant. According to her, owing to the fact that she was born in a rural area, she was not used to extravagance. She therefore channeled most of hersalary into her savings account. “I used to make good money but as a village girl, I was not used to partying,” she says adding that she spent most of her weekends in the village hence she was able to build on her savings.
Against this background, during one of her many trips to the village, an idea was born. She decided to venture into farming. At first, together with her husband, they leased a piece of land and started off by planting maize and beans. When harvest time came, the couple was able to make a tidy sum of money and this really motivated them. With the help of a close member of their family, they explored the market in Nairobi. “Our family member played a very key role in introducing us to potential customers and new markets especially in Nairobi and its environs,” she says. As a result, the couple decided to invest more in the project and hence bought a piece of land in Laikipia County. With the confidence that comes with owning a piece of land, they dug a borehole to help in irrigating the crops since rainfall is not guaranteed all year round.
After the land was ready, Mrs. Oyugi hired a farm manager since she was in full time employment just like her husband. In the first three months, they wanted to explore a different market and therefore decided to plant onions in their farm. “Since we had conducted a lot of market research, we agreed to try out onions and fortunately, the harvest was good”, she says adding that the investment paid off.
Ample supply of water is a key driver in farming. Due to challenges in weather patterns, the water levels in their borehole kept going low. This spelt doom to their enterprise which had started thriving. It was time to think outside the box. Luckily, there was a relative who was disposing of a piece of land. “Three years ago, a relative who had got tired of farming coffee offered to sell his farm to us, “ she says. The farm had a dam which was an added advantage. However, there was a problem. The land was bushy as there had not been any activity in it for a very long time. To make it worse, rumours within the local community had it that it was infested with snakes and wild animals hence their reluctance to work on it. “This was a major challenge as no one wanted to work with us and because of time constraint, we had to import labour from other counties”, she avers. The workers who were imported were able to clear about eight out of the thirty acres of land. “We would prepare food for the workers and in turn, they would wake up very early in the morning, hence they finished working within the agreed timeline,” Mrs. Oyugi further says.
They planted onions to start with and the harvest was bountiful. This was mainly due to the fact thatthere had not been any farming activity in the land for a long time and hence the soil nutrients had been enriched. In addition, Mrs. Oyugi was able to make extra cash as the coffee trees were burnt to charcoal which she sold to the local community.
Diversification plays a critical role in the success of agribusiness. Mrs. Oyugi therefore sort the services of an agronomist to test the soils and advise on the plantsthat could do well in her farm. In the meantime, she was also considering the export market as some of the plants like eggplants, garlic and chili were not in high demand in the local community.
Her biggest break came during the Covid-19 pandemic when many people were requested to work from home in conformity with the guidelines and protocols that
were issued by both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Ministry of Health. This gave her a goldenopportunity to workin the farm. “It was during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic when I realized that there were many loopholes in my enterprise,” she shares. For instance, she discovered that there was a lot of redundancy and negative energy among some of the employees. In this regard, they would only work when the family was within the vicinity of the farm.
She therefore decided to bring in a new team that was focused. “Owing to the fact that we are both accountants, our experience in book keeping came in handy,” adds Mrs. Oyugi. The new team was invigorated and each employee knew what was expected of them. “In addition, I did away with the position of farm manager and all employees were on the same level”, she avers. With the success that the farm was registering, they both decided to quit their jobs and focus fully on it. That was a decision that shocked their colleagues, family members and close friends. “Many people could not understand why together with my husband we had to resign from very well paying jobs to concentrate on running the farm”, says Mrs. Oyugi.
Fast forward to the current situation in their enterprise and most of the people who were skeptical about the couple’s decision are now telling a different story. There are tomatoes, water melons, capsicum, green maize and cassava inthe flourishing enterprise. Additionally, they are rearing chicken, goats and rabbits. During the festive season for instance, Steroke Farm was able to sell goats at an average price of Kshs. 7,000 to Kshs. 10,000. “Business in December was very lucrative and I was not even able to meet the demand from our customers”, she offers.
At the same time, the ambitious farmers have also planted sweet potatoes, paw paws and tissue culture bananas from JKUAT which mature within thirteen months. Currently, the bananas are on their productive stage and the farm has already found a ready market for them internationally.
According to Mrs. Oyugi, their biggest challenge so far is their decision to venture into avocado farming. “As you can see, we have a very huge chunk of land in our neighbourhood that is idle,” she says. “Antelopes from that land invaded our farm destroying almost one thousand avocado seedlings that we had planted”, she adds. Although a few survived, it was a painful lesson. We learnt through the hard way. After this experience, Mrs. Oyugi decided to grow her own seedlings (Zion from Kakuzi) which she intends to plant ahead of the rainy season. In addition, the dam which is the main source of water for the farm houseshippos. They invade the farm at night and destroy some of the crops. Another challenge has been dishonesty among some employees who have been caught stealing farm inputs. However, these dishonest employees have since been relieved off their duties. Mrs. Oyugi is currently managing the farm.
One of the greatest achievements according to Mrs. Oyugi is being able to feed the local community. For instance, during our interview with her, villagers would occasionally stream in to buy produce from the farm. This to her has been very fulfilling especially because most of them were very pessimistic when she was starting off. They have now embraced the project. They have even given the farm an apt name – Site. Another major achievement is that she has been able to employ ten permanent workers. In the same breath, during the peak season (like tiling land and harvesting) she hires many casual labourers.
The road ahead
Steroke Farm is housed on a thirty acre piece of land but they have not yet utilized the whole of it. In the near future, Mrs. Oyugi is planning to engage insubsistence farming and add more crops to be able to meet the growing demand in the market. By the same token, the farm is strategically positioned as there is a road that is beingconstructed. After its completion, it will only take one ten minutes to drive to Thika superhighway. Mrs. Oyugi has also been able to study market trends and she is therefore focusing on growing crops with a ready market. She also plans to open a shop where the local community and domestic tourists will be able to walk in and buy fresh produce from the farm. “ We have realized that people are attracted by the green vegetation in the farm as it is visible from the main road and most inquire if they can buy the produce, hence our decision to open the shop,” she adds. are also planning to venture into bee-keeping because the demand for honey in the Kenyan market makes it one of the most profitable businesses today. Together with her husband and armed with the wealth of experience they have attained over the years, they have also launched greenhouse investments for customers with a goal of making some returns over a certain period of time. “We have realized that there are so many people who want to venture into agribusiness but have no idea how to go about it”, she observes.
Steroke Farm is a classic example that you can achieve a lot in life if you are focused. The main lesson is entrepreneurship doesn’t have to start at the capital level, it can start from the skills level as what she learnt growing up is what led to the establishment of this successful venture.
According to Mrs. Oyugi, her diary is not definite as it depends on the season and the type of work at the farm. Mostly, she wakes up at six in the morning. After her morning chores, she plans for the day and calls the person in charge of the farm on that particular day. Thereafter, she gets to the farm and analyzes the previous day’s work.
Favourite Book – My Dream
Favourite Food – Chicken and Ugali
Hobbies- Spending special moments with family
Dream Car – Toyota Landcuiser V8
Favourite quote-If you want to succeed in any job, make yourself invaluable and go the extra mile