Kenya: Farmer makes the switch from wheat to beans

December 12, 2016
A translation for this article is available in French

It’s a cold morning in Bomet County in Kenya’s Rift Valley, but Loise Chelagat is already up.  She woke up at five to prepare breakfast for her family and send the children off to school. Now, she is in her bean field removing weeds.

She says, “It is weeding season and I have to start early before the rains begin in the early afternoon.”

Mrs. Chelagat planted beans on three of her 12 acres. She began growing beans seven years ago and is very happy with her decision.

She explains: “My in-laws have been wheat farmers for many, many years, and we decided to also try beans because wheat was not doing well with the changes in climate. I am very happy with the outcome of my beans over the years.”

Mrs. Chelagat is one of the many farmers in Kenya who are moving away from traditional maize and wheat farming and switching to beans. In many Kenyan farming communities, beans are considered a woman’s crop because they have been grown mostly for local consumption and did not fetch much in the market. But times have changed. And with reliable seeds, Mrs. Chelagat can be sure of earning a good income from her bean crop.

Davis Karanja is the coordinator of the green legume project at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization. He says beans have become a popular crop in Kenya because they are nutritious and provide a good income for farmers, who have a ready market at home and abroad. Farmers like Mrs. Chelagat now sell a 90-kilogram bag of beans for $50 US.

Mr. Karanja is quick to add that growing beans has its challenges. He explains: “Changing weather patterns worsen disease and pest problems. Beans are also labour-intensive. Small-scale farmers need extra hands, especially if they want to grow larger acreages.”

Mrs. Chelagat is growing an improved variety of bean which is resistant to pests and diseases —and grows well even in unpredictable weather. Six weeks after planting one kilogram of seeds, she can expect to harvest about 30 kilograms of beans.

To deal with the labour challenge, Mrs. Chelagat and her fellow women farmers in Bomet County take turns planting, weeding, threshing, and harvesting on each other’s farms. She explains, “During these seasons, all the women gather in one farm [to work] and move to the next farm until all the work is complete.”

The beans are harvested during the hot season, when the pods are brown and hard, and the seeds rattle. After the harvest, Mrs. Chelagat stores the beans in a warehouse built of iron sheeting. She explains, “Iron-sheet helps in preventing rats and weevils. My store is raised off the ground and has open spaces on the sides to allow for [air] circulation and to help in drying.”

Mrs. Chelagat says the secret to her success has been preparing her land for planting early enough to prevent weeds. She adds, “I also use rhizobial inoculant, which I buy from the agricultural extension office.” Legumes such as beans work together with soil bacteria called rhizobia to take nitrogen from the air and transform it into a form that plants can use. Farmers can purchase rhizobial inoculants, which they inject into the soil to increase this process.

Mr. Karanja advises farmers to use rhizobial inoculants because they add nitrogen to the soil, which is very important, particularly when the beans start germinating.

Mrs. Chelagat’s husband works in the county government office and does not earn much. But with the extra money Mrs. Chelagat earns from her beans, she can help pay some bills and provide for the children’s needs.

The couple has not completely abandoned wheat farming. Mrs. Chelagat says, “We still grow wheat because my husband’s family believes we must have some land dedicated to wheat. So he is in charge of wheat sales.”

Mrs. Chelagat hurries to finish the weeding as her children will soon be coming home from school.  The beans don’t just generate a good income for the family; they are also a healthy dinner. Laughing, she explains, “I need to boil some beans for supper. My [youngest] child loves beans and can have them every day. So you see, it is not just for money, my family loves beans too.”