Originally published on June 1, 2015.
At the start of 2014, fifty five-year-old Naomi Nthenya Munyao was just a regular smallholder farmer in Machakos County in Kenya’s semi-arid eastern region. Like most other rural, smallholder families in Kenya, Naomi and her family depended on agriculture as an important part of their livelihoods. And yet her farm produced poor and insufficient yields. Although Naomi was lucky to have a water source on her farm – a rare commodity in this area, like many other farms in the region, her land was degraded and depleted of nutrients.
In February 2014, when the USAID Kenya Feed the Future Innovation Engine announced its first wave of awardees at an event in Thika County - about 40kms away from Naomi’s farm, little did she know that this spelled a change of fortunes for her. Launched in 2012, the five-year program identifies, fosters, and brings to scale innovative market-driven solutions to persistent food insecurity, under nutrition and poverty.
I am happy that my farming is encouraging other members of my group and community members to take up farming seriously.
Wanda Organic Ltd., one of the program’s initial seven awardees and a Kenyan start-up company, approached Naomi to be the lead farmer from the Nditha Women's Group, of which she is a member. Wanda Organic specializes in Plantmate – an organic fertilizer, and Prime EC plant food for smallholder farmers in Kenya. Produced from plant and animal waste, and the breakthrough result of over 40 years in biotechnological research in South East Asia, Australia and the Middle East, Plantmate facilitates healthy plant growth and also improves soil fertility. With seed funding and technical assistance from USAID Kenya, Wanda Organic is testing affordable organic fertilizer with rural farmers in Machakos and Makueni Counties to learn if it is a viable product for the Kenyan market.
Naomi worked with Wanda Organic to test Plantmate on various fruit and vegetable crops including French beans, bananas, paw paws and tomatoes. The innovator ‘s mission was to prove that by providing the plant with essential nutrients, as well as helping to improve the soil’s nutrient-binding and storing capacity, Plantmate is indeed the local smallholder farmer’s solution to soil infertility and persistent poor yields.
(From left) Patrick, Naomi and Titus show Wanda Organic founder and director Marion Moon (right) results in their French bean field
A few months into the project, Naomi began reporting exciting results; her son Titus, who was managing the demonstration site, realized a bumper tomato harvest amounting to three times the usual yields! So enthralled was Titus with the organic fertilizer, that he offered Wanda Organic an acre of the farm for further demonstrations and began championing the use of Plantmate fertilizer among neighbors. Moreover, he bought two goats with part of the profits from the sale of the tomatoes and - believe it or not - named them Wanda in appreciation of the remarkable results!
"I used to struggle a lot with my farm, my crops did not produce good yield and I would a make a loss" said Naomi.
By March 2015, almost exactly one year after the start of the project Naomi is excited about how well Wanda Organic's product has improved her crop yields. Indeed, her flourishing farm is a sight for sore eyes. Crops grown using Plantmate are strong and healthy, and where she still maintains crops grown without the fertilizer for comparison, the differences are stark. This is partly because, when used in isolation, synthetic chemical fertilizers are damaging to the soil. An optimal combination of Plantmate with conventional fertilizers has shown the most promising results.
"I am happy that my farming is encouraging other members of my group and community members to take up farming seriously," said Naomi.
The innovation has also intrigued Naomi’s husband Patrick who now enjoys farming with his wife. A retired teacher, Patrick was previously uninterested in farming. Since recognizing the impact of Wanda Organic’s innovation in the area, he has joined in to support his wife’s venture. They now farm together and make enough income to support their family.
Patrick shows off the fruit of a banana tree grown using Plantmate (right). On left, the fruit from a tree grown with conventional fertilizer.
"We now have enough food to sustain our family and make an income from it too," Patrick says beaming proudly. “Not only is the soil richer, but it seems to retain water better when we use Plantmate and my crops are not as vulnerable to disease. This saves us the effort and cost associated with frequent watering and buying chemicals to cure diseases in my crops."
Members of the community often visit Naomi’s farm to learn more about her farming techniques and how to use Plantmate to increase crop yield. With the usage of Plantmate, Wanda Organic is supporting farmers to begin to embrace more progressive and environmentally-sustainable agricultural practices that have proven to increase yields, reduce crop cycles, suppress diseases and improve soil health.
While the organization currently imports and markets the product, raises awareness about the numerous benefits of such solutions, and builds demand for them, the company’s intention is to set up local, strategically-located production facilities in Kenya and East Africa, where Wanda Organic has secured the exclusive rights for the technology.
Demand for Plantmate is rising as farmers see the remarkable results for themselves; vegetables grown using the organic fertilizer produce a bigger and healthier yield than those grown using the prevalent synthetic chemical fertilizers. Wanda Organic is currently devising strategies to improve distribution in order to bring down costs and meet rising demand.
Meanwhile, farmers like Naomi continue to rejoice at their newfound fortune thanks to Wanda Organic.