By David Njagi
NGOLIBA, Kenya – Until a maize crop has gone through the eight month cycle of maturity, hardly can farmers claim a harvest. John Mwema does.
But the 34-year-old’s maize crop at the one acre farm in Ngoliba village, Eastern Kenya, is not the ordinary one grown by thousands of farmers in Kenya.
Baby corn, or cornlette, is the variety of maize that keeps Mwema returning to the farm for a harvest at least three times with every crop sown.
“It is a type of maize that is harvested while looking like it is immature. It is eaten whole including the cob,” said Mwema, adding that it takes about 50 days since planting for him to make the first harvest.
At this time of the year, the terrain at Mwema’s village is dotted with drying thickets. A Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) reading indicates that temperatures can be as high as 40 degrees Celsius here.
By his estimation, it last rained in December 2016. But his farm is covered by green corn, which he has kept this way by watering from the nearby Thika River.
It is understandable that Mwema can spend most of the day tending to his crop. For planting just five kilogrammes of seed, he now has about 35,000 crops to care for.
Each of these, he said, will produce two to three cobs, and can yield up to a tonne until the last harvest.
“Baby corn matures very fast. Nothing is wasted from the crop,” he said, indicating that even the maize stalks are sold to livestock farmers as fodder.
But it is the attractive prices that his crop fetches that keeps him working resiliently at the farm.
When he has placed an order locally with outlets like Nakumatt supermarket, he sells a kilogramme for about $ 2. For local folks buying from his farm, a dollar for one kilo of baby corn keeps money flowing in.
Martha Musyoka, a scientist at the Nairobi-based International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) said there is a promising export market for baby corn because of the demand for the product in Europe.
But even locally, appetite for the crop is on the rise, indicating that farmers in central and eastern Kenya are now growing the crop to meet rising local demand.
“The cob is very tender and is harvested when it is not very thick,” said Musyoka. “It is very nutritious and is eaten as a salad or as a cooked meal.”
There is a climate change appeal too. According to her, the weather at Mwema’s village is suitable for the Thai Gold, Baby Corn ZS206, G5414 and SG18, varieties that are being grown in Kenya.
Due to its fast maturing ability, she said, farmers do not have to rely on rainfall to grow baby corn. All one needs is a source of water to irrigate the crop, argued Musyoka.
“It also acts as a wind breaker in dry areas,” she added, but warned that the crop needs a lot of attention and delicate care when growing it.
Joseph Muthengi, a fresh produce farmer in Eastern Kenya agrees. The 39-year-old was a passionate baby corn grower.
For him, having a ready crop meant that companies like Kenya Fresh, could buy the product directly from his farm for export to the European Union (EU) market.
“The returns in terms of money were so good that I was even planning to buy extra land to plant more baby corn,” said Muthengi, as he recalls the good fortunes that trickled in, four years ago.
However, the fortunes stopped flowing when the EU introduced regulations and standards that required farmers to meet certain conditions for their crop to be accepted into the lucrative market.
These conditions included, where the crop was being grown, and the type of chemicals used on the crop, among others, he recalled.
“They started rejecting our produce. This was a blow to us because of the losses we incurred,” recalled Muthengi, who now grows French beans and tomatoes.
At one time, he said, 10 crates of produce which he had harvested and packed were rejected.
“The best way to protect farmers from international market pressures is to train them on value addition and market their produce locally,” said Su Kahumbu of the Food Network East Africa.
“The local market is the closest one for fresh produce farmers and has few market risks,” she added.
However, Apollo Owuor, an agronomist working in Kenya, advises farmers to grow baby corn in rotation with other crops like pulses and pepper.