Most farmers find themselves at the mercy of traders or brokers who take advantage of their little knowledge of market dynamics to exploit them.
Larry Keya learnt this bitter lesson when he ventured into farming in 2012.
Like most young people, Mr Keya did not have enough capital and so he decided to partner with a friend.
The duo injected Sh120,000 in two greenhouses where they planted capsicums and tomatoes. They earned a meagre Sh20,000 from the venture.
His business partner was so discouraged that he sold the two greenhouses and quit, leaving Mr Keya to ponder on the next move.
“I felt that I should give it a second chance because I knew there was good money in farming. Another friend offered me his two greenhouses free of charge,” recalled Mr Keya.
Later he acquired two more greenhouses through funding from the Youth Enterprise Development Fund.
He planted the Cucumber Slicer variety and harvested 28 kilos. Brokers offered him Sh10 per kilo and he promptly turned down the offer. Disappointed, he decided to go to Eldoret town and sell the produce directly to consumers.
“It took me 30 minutes to sell them at Sh1,500 instead of the Sh280 the middlemen had offered,” he said.
In mid 2014 he took a leap of faith and turned to the English Cucumber variety which grows to 30cm long compared to the Slicer which is between 8cm and 10cm. When he took the cucumbers to the market they were rejected because they were crooked.
“I took 230 kilos to the market. They told me that consumers prefer the straight ones,” recounted the 32-year-old who graduated with a degree in Agricultural Economics and Resource Management at Moi University, Eldoret, in 2010.
Distraught, he went back home with the produce which started rotting promptly.
He decided to carry out research on how to add value to cucumbers.
In 2015, Mr Keya embarked on value addition by making popsicles or ice cream from cucumbers. On the first day he produced 160 pieces which he sold at Sh800.
His resilience and determination is finally paying off. Today Mr Keya’s firm Sweet De Laat — which makes popsicles from cucumbers and other fruits like mangoes, pineapples and strawberries as well as milk — is thriving. During peak seasons he makes up to 10,000 pieces of ice cream per day in various sizes that cost Sh5, Sh10 and Sh20.
As the business grew, he bought 12 freezers for storage of the ice cream.
One of his key challenges is eratic weather patterns which affect consistent crop production. Because of this, his business thrives for six months and stagnates for another six each year.
“Fruit-based popsicles are seasonal. Consumers prefer them especially during the hot months compared to milk ones which are bought even in the cold season. This year has been quite rainy which has affected my business,” said Mr Keya.
Another obstacle is stiff competition which often forces him to reduce the price of his products to woo vendors and stay afloat. In 2014, for instance, all his vendors shifted loyalty to a new competitor.
“I realised that there is no loyalty in business. When your business is doing well you have to be creative, it is important to stay ahead of the pack,” he said philosophically.
And to stay ahead, he was forced to import cup moulders from Brazil at Sh360,000.
The moulders changed his business as vendors started trooping back because his popsicles looked more attractive to his main customers; children and youngsters. Even though he won vendors back, he found that the popsicles melted quickly in Eldoret’s hot sun.
He browsed through the Internet and identified a tricycle fitted with freezers, powered by a battery, which was popular in Europe.
“I admired them but they were expensive with each costing Sh280,000 without factoring in the importation cost and tax,” he said.
Coincidentally, he identified a company in Eldoret town which imported them from India at a cheaper price.
He initially bought five at Sh150,000 each and later bought another five after realising that they were a godsend to his business.
Mr Keya expanded his business to Kakamega town last year and is piloting the venture in Nakuru, Nairobi and Homa Bay counties.
“My future plans is enter more markets like Turkana and forge partnerships,”he said.
Today Mr Keya packages and markets his products from premises in the sprawling Langas Estate on the outskirts of Eldoret.
He said he has bought land where he is putting up a small factory to expand the business.