Wednesday August 27 2014

From real estate to greenhouse farming

Kagga carrying out various activities around

Kagga carrying out various activities around his farms. PHOTO BY FRED MUZAALE 

By Fred Muzaale

I am Suuna Kagga, 25, a resident of Lutengo village, Nama Sub-county in Mukono District. I own Tengo Fresh Farm, which has vegetables—tomatoes, cabbages, onions, green and sweet pepper—under greenhouse. There is also cassava and cabbages under open field farming.

My interest in farming begun while I was attending high school in South Africa, 2005 and 2006. Many of the students who seemed well-to-do came from families involved in agribusiness. I visited some of their homes and saw that they were making a lot of money from commercial farming.

In 2011, I completed my degree in finance and accounting at University of Kent, UK and came back to Uganda. I searched for jobs but did not like what was offered.
So, I started dealing in real estate where I was getting a commission on each house or land sold. I did this for six months but did not make the kind of money I expected.
Around that time, my schoolmates from South Africa paid me a visit. They remarked about Uganda having a huge potential of being a food basket of Africa because of its green vegetation and fertile soils.
This touched me, and coupled with my previous experiences, I decided to engage in commercial farming.

But I had no money to invest. So, I approached my father and shared the idea with him. He promised to support me financially.
Our family owned 23 acres of land in Mukono District. This is what one I used.

I get started
Choosing which crops to grow was a challenge. There were many crops to choose from but I decided to go for vegetables. Compared to other crops, with vegetables, there are three seasons a year. In addition, getting a market would not be a problem as the farm is not far from Kampala, Mukono and other urban centres.
I began by growing different types of vegetables; onions, green pepper, sukuma wiki, tomatoes, cabbages, dodo, among others under open field farming.

My intention was to find out which vegetables were viable, which ones were prone to attacks by pests and diseases. I grew each type of vegetable on an acre. I spent about Shs2m on seeds, fertilisers and pesticides.
In the end, I found out that cabbages, tomatoes, green pepper and onions were better suited and I decided to concentrate on these four crops.

Due to high incidence of pests and diseases coupled with unreliable rain, I incurred losses. Most were destroyed by pests and diseases even as I tried to control them with pesticides. What I harvested was poor quality.
Nonetheless, this did not deter me as I continued growing the same vegetables for three seasons with in hope of getting good harvest. But I kept suffering losses.
Later, I discovered that the pesticides were fake. It was because I did not buy them from certified agro input dealers. In spite of applying them correctly, they were not killing the pests.

Turning point
In 2013, I sought help from Balton because I had heard that they had genuine seeds, fertilisers and pesticides in addition to offering technical knowledge.
They advised me to use greenhouse farming technology to deal with my predicament. I found their advice good but I had no money. Again, I approached my father who gave me Shs10m to acquire the greenhouses.

They showed what I had to do to start it like soil preparation, how to make a nursery bed and how to transplant the seedlings.
I constructed the greenhouse basing on technical knowhow from Balton. They designed the greenhouse according to the size of land I had. They provided me with all that was to be used in the farmer’s kit.

However, I used wood instead of aluminum which is recommended as it was cheaper for me in the short run. The number of greenhouses has increased, there are five now.

There are of various sizes: 24 x 40 metres, 40 x 8 metres, 20 x 8 metres and 8 x 6 metres. I plan to replace the wood with aluminum since that is durable and cheaper in a long-run.
The greenhouse comprises a shed net, which helps with ventilation, an ultra violet plastic that protects plants from direct sun, drip lines and tanks. Then, fertilisers and pesticides are applied. But the pesticides are not commonly used since the crops are hardly attacked by pests.

After installing the drip lines and arranging the bags of soil at a distance of 30cm by 30 cm with each having a drip eye for the water, I drenched the soil with fungicides. Drenching helps to kill soil-born fungal diseases. After that, I transplanted the seedlings.

Despite planting my crops in the greenhouse, my first harvest of tomatoes was not good since I had not yet got the experience in greenhouse farming. I had expected to earn about Shs20m from my yields but ended up getting only Shs3m.
Currently, I have 800 plants of Red beauty cherry tomatoes, which are the traditional small tomatoes that used to grow by themselves. This tomato variety is very nutritious and is bought by foreigners and hotels.

I also have 7,500 green pepper plants. I plant the tomatoes and green pepper at different times so that they do not mature at the same period.
This is an advantage because if I fail to get high prices for tomatoes or green pepper today, I still can get another harvest the following month.

Every seven days, I harvest 300-450kgs of tomatoes while for pepper, I harvest 240-370kgs. The greenhouses now cover 2,000 square metres.
Because I harvest throughout the year, my produce fetches higher prices during dry seasons. There is limited supply of vegetables on the market as most farmers cannot grow them during dry periods.
For instance, during good weather when there is high supply of vegetables, a 70kg sack of tomatoes goes for Shs30,000 but the prices shoot up to Shs250,000 during dry periods.
After harvesting, I weigh and pack them in plastic crates. I also pack the tomatoes in polythene bags. Despite the fact that my packages do not have a brand name, I plan to get it soon.

Using proceeds from my farm, I have bought several plots of land where I plan to build houses for rent next year. I expect to be earn about Shs4m monthly, which would supplement the income I get from farming.
The farm has given me employment, I do not think of being employed. I am my own boss. My advice to those who want to invest in farming is they should be patient and persevere because the benefits do not come easily.

What is greenhouse farming?
Greenhouse farming is growing of crops under controlled environment. The technology allows farmers to grow crops even in climates and other conditions that may not be favourable.
Marianne Namanya Nkore, public relations and business development manager, Balton (U) Ltd, which supplies and installs greenhouses as well as instructs farmers on how to use them.

“Greenhouse technology encourages anyone to engage in farming. Even those who have no land can rent it for farming because the greenhouse can be moved to elsewhere when the owner of the land needs to use it,” she says.

The greenhouses are sold in farmer’s kits, which are in three different sizes depending on the need.
The smallest is 6 x 12 metres. It is also called the kitchen garden because it can be used to grow vegetables like onions, tomatoes and carrots on a verandah or just behind the house. This one has four heaped soil in rows, which are called beds.
The other type of farmer’s kit, measures 8 x 15 metres, has four to eight beds and can take up to 5,000 plants. It can be used in commercial farming.

Like the previous one, the third and also the largest farmer’s kit is suitable for commercial farming. It is 8 x 24 metres, has four to five beds but are bigger in size.
Other components of the kit are 16-litre knapsack sprayer, pesticides, fungicides and fertilisers, protective gear, a nursery set that includes seeds and trays, greenhouse tunnel, drip irrigation system for 500 square metres, and a 500-litre water tank.

For durability, greenhouses with aluminum supports are better than those constructed using wood. The latter can be destroyed by termites or can decay leading to collapse of the greenhouse.

Namanya says greenhouse farming comes with a number of benefits. Among them is high production per unit area of land and pests and diseases are easily controlled since the crops are grown in a protected environment. Even those that manage to attack the crops are dealt with using fewer pesticides.
Another advantage is the production period is prolonged; it can reach a maximum of nine months, which is not possible under open cultivation. This increases a farmer’s earnings. In addition, there is efficient utilisation of water because every drop of water goes where it is needed.

Greenhouse farming also helps a farmer to have high quality produce. Other benefits include low costs of labour because there is no weeding or watering.
But, Namanya warns, under poor crop management, a farmer is likely to lose the entire crop since they are grown under a controlled environment. Because of this, it is important to ensure proper crop management.

On my farm, I employ a manager, a caretaker, an agronomist and two casual labourers. During the harvest, I employ more labourers as there is a lot of work to do like bagging soil and transplanting seedlings.
I also have a person who does record keeping, however, I help him because I did finance and accounting.
The labourers also work in my open field.

Setting up
I began by preparing the land where I was going to construct the greenhouses. After that, I fenced it off to keep away both people and animals. This is important because people and animals can carry diseases and pests to the area.
I got top loam soil which we steamed on site to make the microbes living in it inactive. We had been taught how to steam the soil by Balton technical staff.

After this, I bagged the soil I had mixed it with DAP fertiliser in polythene bags. DAP helps in the formation of strong roots.
Along with preparing the land, I made a nursery bed of green pepper and tomatoes using the coco peat growing medium.
The coco peat, which is used to substitute soil is made from cocoa and coffee husks. It is imported as there is no factory that manufactures it locally.

I mixed the coco peat with compost manure for better growth of seedlings. I bought seedling trays at Shs10,000 each. It is in the seedling trays that I put the polythene bags that had the seeds.
The advantage of using trays is that the seedlings grow well since in each hole in the tray there is only one seedling.
In addition, it savs seeds and transplanting is also made easy because the roots are not damaged during the process.
It is better to use coco peat instead of loam soil because it ensures a higher germination rate and proper development of roots.
The seedlings were ready for transplanting in five weeks.

I have an irrigation system covering eight acres. It is both drip and sprinkler irrigation.
I dug a dam, where I installed a water pump that takes water to the tanks. It is these tanks from which the water goes to the gardens through pipes.
I have five acres under drip irrigation. But I have discovered that sprinkler irrigation is not cost–effective as a lot of water is wasted.
Irrigation is also done in the open field farming where I grow cassava and cabbages.
I practice irrigation, which also helps me to grow crops even during long dry periods.

I usually sell my vegetables to supermarkets like Shoprite and Capital Shoppers and also at Kaleerwe market and to KK Foods, which exports them.
I have delivery van, which I use to take the produce to the market. I am able to sell to supermarkets because my produce meets the standards. I also supply them consistently since I harvest throughout the year.
For supermarkets, I sell a kilo of green pepper and cherry tomatoes at Shs6,000 ech while for ordinary tomatoes, it is at Shs2,300.
At Kaleerwe, I sell a kilo of sweet and green pepper between Shs4,500 and Shs5,000 depending on the amount of supplied.
The disadvantage with supermarkets is that they take small quantities as they have many suppliers. They also pay me a month after supply. Every week, I supply 380kg of both sweet and green pepper while for chilly tomatoes, I supply about 100kg.
In a month, I can earn about Shs3m from selling 500kg of both vegetables to supermarkets and Kaleerwe market.

Fluctuation in market prices affects me because I incur losses. The prices usually go down when there is an oversupply. This is a big challenge since the prices of farm inputs are always going up.
To overcome this, I want to enter into contracts with my clients, which will stabilise the price at which they buy from me.
The high taxes imposed on importation of agricultural implements have resulted into a rise in prices of these tools. This affects me since I have a lot of inputs to buy for my farm. This reduces the profit margin.
Managing a greenhouse requires technical knowhow and getting a person to do it is quite difficult.
But because I know that the enterprise is profitable I have hired a person who knows how to manage it and I pay him a monthly salary.
But since I have been practicing greenhouse farming for two years I have also gained some experience and I do some of the work myself.