Sawa Pius | November 21, 2011
Geoffrey Wafula grew up eating African indigenous vegetables. He never imagined they could have a place on a sugarcane plantation. For the past ten years Mr. Wafula has grown sugarcane on a hectare of land in the Mumias district of Western Kenya. Since he began intercropping vegetables with his sugarcane, both his income and soils have improved.
Sugarcane is the main cash crop in Western Kenya. But land is scarce in this region. According to Mr. Wafula, farmers cannot rely on sugarcane to provide for all their needs. They must find other sources of income.
As well as being a farmer, Mr. Wafula is an agricultural field assistant with the Kenya Sugar Research Foundation. He learned from researchers there that he could grow indigenous vegetables alongside sugarcane. This would enrich the soil and he could sell the vegetables.
In 2006, Mr. Wafula decided to try the technique, known as intercropping. He says, “I started intercropping the vegetables [in the] sugarcane … I grow spider plant, amaranth, jute mallow, black night shade, crotalaria and cowpeas.”
Mr. Wafula explains that these vegetables have high market values compared to exotic varieties like cabbage and spinach. He adds, “The demand is very high and my major clients are the local restaurants and the markets around.” Thanks to profits from vegetable sales, he can afford to buy household goods and send his children to school. The family also eats some of the vegetables.
Mr. Wafula urges other farmers to make the most of their small sugarcane plots by intercropping. He says that sugarcane takes up to two years to mature, but vegetables take only three months. Vegetables can be planted in single or double rows between the lines of sugarcane. The vegetables should be harvested before the sugarcane becomes leafy and shades the ground, forming what is called a canopy. He advises, “If you plant sugarcane today, tomorrow you plant the vegetables. This is because at seven months, the sugarcane forms a canopy and the shade will affect the vegetables.”
Through his work at the sugar research foundation, Mr. Wafula has learned another advantage of intercropping: reducing soil erosion. He says that vegetables form a cover and hold water. In this way, they prevent rain from washing the soil away.
Mr. Wafula estimates there are around 300,000 sugarcane farmers in Western Kenya. About half of them use the technique of intercropping. And as more farmers learn about it, the technique is spreading. Mr. Wafula is glad that he gave it a try. He says, “The vegetables have been a blessing to me.”