It is around eight o’clock in the morning in Keroka, a remote village in southwestern Kenya’s Nyamira County. Yunuke Nyakerario is very excited and unusually full of energy today. She hums her favourite church hymn as she yanks at a banana fibre to securely tie a sack full of vegetables.
The 40-year-old harvested the vegetables on her half-acre farm, and now it’s time to transport them. She lifts the 40-kilogram sack of vegetables onto her head. Her humming gets louder and the song grows sweeter as she walks along the village path, the tall grasses still wet with dew.
She is rushing to the homestead of Mary Moraa, another vegetable farmer, located about half a mile away, where several farmers have already gathered with their harvested crops. Miss Nyakerario is joining them to preserve her vegetables with a solar dryer. These farmers are using a solar dryer to dry their vegetables.
Vegetables are highly perishable items, and can spoil if not transported to the market and sold quickly. Miss Nyakerario says, “We have been incurring huge post-harvest losses before, but now [we] have found a solution by preserving the vegetables using a solar dryer.”
Dried vegetables are also earning her a greater income. She explains, “After drying my vegetables, I stock them and wait for a better season when the commodities are scarce, like when there are dry spells. That is the best moment for me to sell my produce.”
The dryer can preserve fruits, seeds, and tubers, as well as vegetables. In the village of Keroka, more than 100 women share one solar dryer. The women package their products in sachets of different weights before selling them in the market.
The dryer is a wooden box, which sits low to the ground. It has a drying tray and a transparent glass top, which allows sunrays to reach the vegetables. This dryer can dry between 13 and 16 kilograms of fresh vegetables in three hours.
Samson Maobe is a lecturer at Kisii University in Kenya. He explains, “The solar dryer only removes water from the vegetables and leaves the green matter dry with all the nutrients intact.” Mr. Maobe says that one benefit of the dryer is that the aroma and nutrients are not lost. He says, “There is a big difference between vegetables dried under the sun and those dried under the solar dryer. The difference is with the aroma and level of nutrients.”
He adds that, when the dried vegetables are soaked in water, they regain their original colour and appear as they did when freshly harvested.
Miss Nyakerario and the other farmers formed a group called Mapema Women’s Group. They received their solar dryer from the government, which has distributed 40 solar dryers across Nyamira and other counties, with the support of NGOs.
Kenaly Orenge is the coordinator of Nyamira County. He says the initiative promotes value addition in agriculture and is one of the main strategies for alleviating poverty in rural Kenya. He says that the farmers’ prospects are good, and that they plan to increase the number of beneficiaries.
The women of the Mapema group package and sell dried products locally, but want to start selling to international markets. They grow and dry common vegetables like spider plant (known locally as sagaa), cowpeas (kunde), amaranth (emboga), black nightshade (managu), and other traditional vegetables.
In the past, Miss Nyakerario’s vegetable sales depended on demand and supply. She says, “Initially, we used to sell a sack of spider plant for as low as 500 Kenyan shillings ($4.75 US) when markets are bad, and up to 5,000 Kenyan shillings ($47 US) during seasons when supply is low.”
But now she has more power in the market because she can preserve her vegetables.
When there is a drought, a kilogram of her dried vegetables can fetch between 300 and 500 Kenyan shillings ($2.85-$4.75 US). This means that after drying and selling 60 kilograms of fresh vegetables, she can earn about 8,000 shillings ($77 US), which is almost double the amount she would receive for fresh vegetables right after the harvest.