Some two kilometres from Soy trading centre in Aligula, Likuyani, Kakamega County, Nelson Njuguna runs a moringa farm.
He grows the crop inside a greenhouse tucked in a section of his 30-acre family farm, with the rest hosting maize and beans, the dominant crops in the region.
The 8m-by-15m structure hosts 500 moringa plants, as he planted 700 but 200 died.
"Most people assume that you can only grow tomatoes or capsicum in a greenhouse, but here is the proof that moringa also does well in the structure," says the 50-year-old farmer.
He developed interest in the crop in 2014 when he met an exhibitor at the Eldoret Agricultural Show, who sold him one kilo of seeds.
"I was impressed at the numerous benefits of the crop, which include its various nutrients and uses, which range from nourishing the human skin, protecting the liver, fighting bacterial infections to preventing cancer," notes the farmer who quit teaching in 2008 after 15 years in the profession.
Njuguna funneled Sh300,000 into the business, starting with propagating seedlings and selling each at Sh100.
"I used to sell about 800 seedlings every year at an average of Sh100. I realised this did not make economic sense and shifted to growing the plants in the greenhouse for value addition," he explains, adding that he first grows the plants in a seedbed.
The seeds germinate in two weeks, after which he transfers them in polythene pots where they stay for two to three months before he moves them to the greenhouse, where he plants them.
"Inside the greenhouse, the plants must be spaced a metre from one row to the next and 0.3 metres from one plant to another. They mature in six months but regular weeding must be done for good growth," says Njuguna, who notes that he embraced greenhouse moringa farming after birds damaged his crop in the open field.
Besides helping the farmer to curb birds' damage, the structure makes the crop to grow faster since it thrives in warmer conditions.
Njuguna says the crop has a lifespan of 30 years, but he replaces the plants after four to five years, when the yields starts to go down.
He has embraced value addition, making soap, powder and perfumed and non-perfumed herbal cream from the plant.
"From the 500 plants, I harvest about eight kilos of leaves, which I dry and grind to make the products," says the farmer, who identifies pests like white flies and spider mites and rust disease as the biggest enemy of the crop.
To make the jelly, after drying the leaves in an oven for eight hours, he mixes them with sunflower (50 per cent) and palm, soya and canola oils (50 per cent).
He then mixes with beeswax, allowing it to heat up to 70 degrees Celsius and then it cools for 24 hours to form the final product.
DEVELOPMENT OF NEW ONES
To make soap, he uses a similar process but introduces olive and beef oils to the canola, sunflower, soya and palm.
He then mixes with sodium hydroxide solution and leaves it to be ready. He sells soap and the jelly at Sh40 and Sh120 respectively.
He grows the crop organically, using plants like tree tomato, basil, chia, lavender and oregano to attract and repel some of the destructive pests.
"I mix farm-yard manure with inorganic fertiliser during planting and top-dress especially after cutting the branches to allow development of new ones," notes the farmer, adding that he plants cuttings for faster growth as he still sells the seedlings.
Dr Shem Mwasi, an environmental biologist at the University of Eldoret, explains that moringa oleifera is a fast-growing deciduous soft wood tree that can grow up to 12 metres high and reach a trunk diameter of 45cm when fully mature.
"It grows well in areas with an annual rainfall of 760 to 2,500mm, an annual average temperature of between 18 and 28°C and an altitude of up to 2,000m above sea level.
In Kenya, it can grow in areas that receive an annual rainfall of as low as 300mm," he says, adding that it can grow in any soil type with a pH of 4.5 to 8, save for areas with a lot of clay soil that is constantly waterlogged.
Dr Mwasi notes planting is done by sowing seeds or vegetative propagation (use of cuttings).
He said trees raised from seeds produce poorer quality fruits but develop longer roots (an advantage for stability and access to water) compared to those grown from cuttings.
"A single mature tree can produce from 15,000 to 25,000 seeds, with an average weight of 0.3 grams per seed during the harvesting season. Almost all parts of the tree are utilised but leaves and fruits (pods and seeds) are the most used parts."
Leaves are used in human and animal nutrition and in traditional medicine because they are rich in bioactive compounds. They are rich in mineral, beta-carotene and natural antioxidant compounds.
"They are a good source of natural antioxidants, which protect the human body from free radicals that play a role in the pathogenesis of diseases such as cancer. The leaves added to cow feeds led to an increase in daily weight gain while daily fresh leaves resulted in increased milk production," he said.