By Umar Nsubuga
For the eighth year running, Vision Group and together with the Embassy of the Netherlands, KLM Airlines, dfcu Bank and Koudjis Animal Nutrition, is running the Best Farmers competition. The 2023 competition will run from March to November, with the awards in December. Every week, Vision Group platforms will publish profiles of the farmers. Winners will walk away with sh150m and a fully paid-for trip to the Netherlands.
When Doreen Nankunda talks about commercial farming, her passion can tempt one to grab the hoe and run to the garden.
Nankunda’s influence spreads across Kitagwenda as she is the district’s woman councillor.
The 39-year-old graduate of economics and resident of Kinyaigara village, Kantonzi sub-county says she used to earn peanuts from her jobs.
“Although I was working hard, life was miserable. I could not afford to buy a nice dress, get time for my family or eat well,” Nankunda says.
All that changed when she started growing vanilla and set up a nursery for seedlings.
“I earn more money from farming than I used to make in my former jobs,” she says.
Nankunda, a former MTN and Airtel dealer, says she does not regret her decision.
“I worked with many telecom companies for years. In 2017, I had two interviews for different companies and both offered similar salaries, but I dreamed of going into farming because my parents were farmers.”
Nankunda did not take up any of the offers, opting to return to the village to engage in farming.
“It was a hard decision to make. My husband, Dr Brian Mugisa, was disappointed that I had declined the job offers, but with time, he gave his blessing and now encourages me,” she says.
In early 2018, Nankunda used her savings of sh12m to start farming on three acres that her husband had inherited from his father.
“In the village I stayed in a small house, while clearing the land.”
In 2019, vanilla was selling like hot cakes in Kitagwenda and Nankunda chose that as her first venture.
She started with two acres. Gradually, she expanded her enterprises by acquiring more land up to the current 10 acres.
Vanilla plants have a long, fleshy climbing stem that attaches to trees by aerial rootlets. It also has roots that penetrate the soil.
To make the most of vanilla, Nankunda intercropped it with matooke.
“Before I started the vanilla project, I visited some farmers in Mukono, so I knew that vanilla is planted through propagation.
She says if not looked after well, vanilla crop cannot blossom and as a result, they do not yield pods. Nankunda says vanilla plants need to be pollinated to produce pods.
“To pollinate a vanilla bean plant, you will need to remove pollen (with a toothpick) from the anther of a flower and place it on the stigma. This process is best done mid-morning. The stigma of a vanilla bean plant is covered by a shield. You will need to gently peel this shield back, place the pollen along the column, and then push the shield back in place,” Nankunda says.
She adds that if the process is successful, one will see vanilla pods start forming within one week and after 8-9 months, you will be able to harvest the beans.
Nankunda says you can harvest the vanilla beans as soon as the tips begin to turn yellow and this will happen approximately 8-9 months after pollination.
Best harvesting practices include ‘sweating’ and then drying. Vanilla can be intercropped with matooke, which provides shade for the vanilla.
Nankunda cultivated 3,000 plants of vanilla on two acres and she sells a kilogramme at sh30,000, but sometimes it goes up to sh35,000.
Growing coffee, other seedlings
Five years ago, Nankunda started growing coffee seedlings for sale. Her seedling shelter is a makeshift one measuring 100 x 50 feet.
It was made using poles with roof of a thick gauge translucent polythene sheet to prevent the sun’s rays from killing the seedlings.
She says it takes nine months to prepare coffee seedlings. She has over 100,000 Arabica coffee seedlings with each going for sh500.
“Usually, I sell coffee seedlings worth sh1m. But this year, I have seedlings of cocoa and mangoes. My dream is to save residents in Kitagwenda from exploitation,” Nankunda says.
She has already initiated negotiations to acquire a coffee processing plant. A kilogramme of processed Arabica coffee goes for sh12,000, while the unprocessed goes for sh2,000.
She also plans to buy a pulping machine because she has promoted coffee growing in the district.
The years in the seedling trade in the remote area has linked Nankunda to a network of clients including politicians and individuals wishing to supply coffee seedlings to different parts of the district.
“Preparing coffee seedlings is hard work. It involves patience. I use organic manure which I get from my animals. The manure is mixed into the soil in the seedbed to improve its fertility,” Nankunda says.
She says it takes two months for the coffee seedlings to germinate. When they germinate, she prepares a shelter where potential buyers can access them easily.
At three months, the seedlings are ready for potting. This involves transplanting the seedlings from the bed into a small plastic paper. A roll of potting plastic papers costs sh15,000.
“I usually use 50 rolls which costs me between sh750,000 and sh800,00,” she says.
The cost of hiring labour to pot the coffee seedlings ranges between sh2m and sh2.5m. Even after the seedlings have been assembled in the seedling shelter, they require regular watering.
Nankunda says six months after potting, she hires four people to water the seedlings.
“I pay them sh100,000 per month, bringing my monthly wage bill to sh2.4m in the six months. The entire cost of production for 300,000 seedlings is about sh7.5m. With a total of 100,000 seedlings for sale, each at sh300.”
Nankunda’s anticipated revenue is sh30m.
She started with half-an-acre and now has two acres.
Nankunda says she got challenges in the beginning of growing cocoa. This was before she got more knowledge in the enterprise.
“When I had just started, I used to sell a pod at sh500. Today, I sell a kilogramme at sh5,000,” she says.
“Because I sell the seedlings of cocoa, I also decided to promote production. I sell seedlings at sh300 each to encourage smallholder farmers so that they can expand their ventures,” Nankunda says.
Besides the affordable prices, Nankunda has had to deal with farmers’ negative attitude towards cocoa growing, especially in Kitagwenda.
“When I had just started on the cocoa multiplication project, farmers used to mock me saying cocoa would exhaust their soils,” she says.
The other challenge was helping farmers market their cocoa produce. Since she was the one supplying seedlings and encouraging them to take up cocoa growing, farmers blamed Nankunda whenever they failed to find a good market for their products.
Nankunda has increased water availability on her farm for irrigation. She says she invested in water because she used to suffer during dry seasons.
“To ensure equal and timely water supply to all the crops on the farm, I constructed a dam and installed pipes all over the farm used in irrigation,” she says.
Marketing the products
Nankunda says her good prices attract many farmers to buy her seedlings. She also hosts people visiting her farm free of charge unless there is a training. It is such people who refer new clients to her.
“We realised that whoever visits the farm is not only a customer, but will also bring others,” she says.
Impact of the project
Nankunda’s farm is a centre of excellence beyond Kitagwenda. She says in the last five years, hundreds of farmers have visited.
“Many farmers come here for training and I am happy that many of them are putting what they learn into practice,” she says.
The farmers are organised into groups to help them market their produce.
Nankunda also employs people to work on her farm and they earn a living.
She motivates employees by paying them on time and training them.
Nankunda has trained many farmers in areas of Kinyagara, Kantonzi and Kabujogera, among others.
She says she has trained over 100 farmers in different ventures.
“As a district leader, I want to train farmers so that they do not make losses. That is why I attend the annual Harvest Money expos to get more skills to train other farmers,” Nankunda says.
She trains both novices and experienced farmers.
Harriet Komuhangi is such one person who was trained by Nankunda and she now works at the nursery.
Nankunda also has five permanent workers whom she pays sh200,000 each per month. She also provides them accommodation. After all the deductions, she also pays herself.
Nankunda has achieved wealth through farming.
“I do catering services and my capital came from farming. My other achievement is saving on food. I do not buy food for my employees and family.”
I save about 50% of the money I would have spent on food because I do intercropping in my vanilla,” she says.
Nankunda says her other achievement is acquiring farming knowledge and spreading it to the people she leads and commercial farmers.
Nankunda holds training sessions for both local and international farmers every month at her home.
“My years of hard work and research have not been in vain. I hope to empower farmers who are willing to work with me,” she says.
Nankunda has set up a big compound as a training centre for farmers.
“One of the reasons people are scared to go into farming is because they fear being called ‘villagers’. So I want to be an example,” she says.
How she has made it
Nankunda keeps records of whatever goes on at the farm. This includes carrying out audits with her workers every day.
“Keeping records helps you track everything that goes on at the farm,” she says.
Nankunda has also created a range of clientele around the area and beyond. Many people book whatever they need straight from the farm and the purchases are recorded.
She wants to increase the number of cows from two to 10 good dairy cows.
She plans to buy a car to transport her goods from the farm to the market.
Nankunda says she derives the courage and strength to expand from her family which is very supportive and involved.
“Since I have made up my mind to continue growing vanilla and coffee, I plan to add value to both crops. I hope to increase my profit margin.”
One of the biggest challenges Nankunda has faced is getting sustainable labour on the farm.
“Most of my employees are target workers. The moment they feel they have learnt or earned enough, they leave. This creates a big gap because most of them leave after they have mastered the farm operations. We train new workers,” she says.
“The weather is not predictable. Because of this, sometimes we plant early. This makes some farm activities expensive,” Nankunda says.
“We used to depend on rain water, but now, without irrigation, it is hard to get good harvests,” she says.
What others say
Martin Araali, resident
Nankunda’s farm is like our demonstration site. Many farmers are learning a lot from her because when she started vanilla farming, we thought vanilla could not do well here, but she has proved us wrong and we are emulating her.
Dr Brian Mugisa, husband
I cannot compare my wife to any other woman. She is very educated but determined. She has worked for the community and the home is like a school. She mobilises people and offers them jobs; many people have benefited from the farm..
Joshua Kiiza, neighbour
Vanilla farming has led to the rapid growth and development of Kitagwenda.