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Tired of poor rains, Meru farmers go for hardy sunflower

Sabina Muriira at work in their one acre sunflower piece of land at Kinyoo, Imenti Central. PHOTO: PETER MUTHOMI.

Farming in this era of climate change has become like playing lottery. You plant a seed, but there are no guarantees that you will harvest the crop because the rains are so erratic. With that reality, a women group has wisenened up.

‚ÄúWe were all fed¬†up¬†of¬†planting¬†crops¬†year after year and getting nothing¬†because¬†the¬†rains¬†did not come, or it was too little. We sat down and vowed not to let the bad weather prevent us from leading a decent life,‚ÄĚ says Sabina Murira the chair of the¬†women¬†group¬†in Central Imenti Meru County.

An NGO shared with them the prospects of sunflower farming.

‚ÄúUnlike other¬†crops¬†that are weather-dependent, we were told that sunflower survives in dry areas and the returns are good. Growing it is also very easy especially if we are to form into¬†groups,‚ÄĚ says Murira.

To get the ball rolling, the¬†women¬†agreed to come together as a¬†group¬†comprising 35 members with each person ‚Äėdonating‚Äô half an acre for sunflower growing.

The hot sun and loose fertile soil in the area is perfect for sunflower growing.

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Warm weather

Murira says sunflower seedlings are tolerant to frost until the six leaf stage, after which they require warm conditions up to the flowering stage.

Salome Raria and Salome Gaiti are members of the group who work at their farms and the group’s farm to ensure they have good harvests to sustain their families.

‚ÄúIn a good season, we can¬†harvest¬†up¬†to 500kgs from one acre. We bought an oil processing machine at Sh760, 000 which¬†hasa capacity to process 100kgs per day,‚ÄĚ said Mrs Raria.

Their oil processor which is built next to their farm also produces livestock and poultry feeds.

To meet the volumes of oil the processor produces they have to buy oil from other farmers.

‚ÄúWe do not get enough sunflowers to process¬†so¬†were are forced to buy it from other farmers who are not our members, at Sh30 a kilo,‚ÄĚ says Murira.

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The group leases land from residents, at Sh8, 000 an acre, so that they can grow more sunflower.

The oil they make is cheaper than the established brands, which attracts more buyers.

¬†‚ÄúWe sell the oil at Sh200 a litre and Sh100 for half a litre,‚ÄĚ she says.

‚ÄúWe also produce grease that we sell to traders who operate machines and do repairs,‚ÄĚ she adds.

Process of making the oil

But how do they make the oil?

According to shellingmachine.com, there are several processes involved in the processing of sunflower seeds into oil. First step is cleaning and sorting of the seeds.

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In most instances, the oil seeds are passed over magnets to remove the trace metal before de-hulled; and passed the special cleaning machine to remove other foreign matters.

The next step is de-hulling, which is optional. This is basically removing all other impurities.

The next stage is grinding. Here the de-hulled seeds are grounded into coarse meal of proper consistency by mechanized grooved rollers or hammer mills. Then the meal is heated to facilitate the oil extraction. While during oil pressing, some impurities are also released with the oil, and they should be removed before the oil can be edible.

Next stage is pressing:

The heated meal is then fed continuously into a screw press, which increases the pressure progressively as the meal passes through a slotted barrel.

Other steps include removing solvent traces, refining the oil and finally packing the oil.

To ensure the business is sustainable, they give 100 per cent commitment.

‚ÄúNone of us is employed¬†so¬†we have a lot of time in our hands to concentrate in our¬†farms. We divide roles according to age and physical fitness,‚ÄĚ says Murira.

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One of the challenges they face is the high cost of fertiliser.

A 50kg bag of NPK fertiliser costs Sh1,800 at the depot and Sh2,500 at agrovet shops. A bag only covers one acre¬†so¬†we need a lot of fertiliser. The cost is a heavy burden, it eats into our profit magins,‚ÄĚ says Raria.

They also hae to deal with predators.

‚ÄúBirds are also a big nuisance. They love to attack our¬†crops¬†from¬†planting¬†to¬†harvesting. But we ensure that some members are always there to scare them away. We put ribbon¬†like¬†scare crows all over the¬†farm¬†to scare them away,‚ÄĚ Murira says.

Despite the odds against them, the farmers are soldiering on.

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