About 27km from Naivasha town, on the southern shores of the lake, sits the expansive Oserian flower farm.
We drive through the gate into a puddle that spans the width of the road. The pool is a biosecurity measure to keep the farm free of diseases.
Expansive greenhouses hosting thousands of flowers line each side of the road and beyond.
But on this day, our visit to the farm is not about the world-renowned flowers, we are here to witness how the company’s employees run an office garden where they grow a variety of horticultural produce that include tomatoes, cabbages and collard greens (sukuma wiki)
“We had our first harvest two weeks ago and we were really excited about it. We farm on five acres donated by the company and every employer participates in the process,” says Evans Osiemo, an agronomist and the garden’s farm manager.
The farm named Nutrition Garden is a flourishing enterprise, and is divided into sections each hosting different crops.
These are brassica vegetables such as cabbages, spinach, collard greens, pinoy and the African nightshade.
Then there are also bulb onions, chili, tomatoes and coriander, and there are plans to introduce purple cabbages, carrots and broccoli.
“All the crops are grown under irrigation. Victoria F1 cabbages cover the largest portion of the office garden, an acre, with the other crops sitting on half-an-acre to 0.2 acres,” says Osiemo.
He works alongside three other expert employees on the garden regularly, supervising tasks that include transplanting the seedlings, weeding, pest and disease control, monitoring the drip valves that irrigate the crops and harvesting.
The other staff normally join when time alows.
“We started the project by testing the soil to ascertain the pH as well as nematodes count. Primary ploughing of the land, harrowing, bed making, marking of the plant lines and setting up of the irrigation system followed in that order.
We later did additional enrichment of the soil by adding manure and DAP fertiliser,” recalls Osiemo, adding they bought seedlings from a Naivasha-based farm and get their water from the nearby lake.
Save for DAP, they rely heavily on crop and animal manure they get from waste material that comes from flowers and sheep the company keeps.
“Oserian is cosmopolitan, we have about 3,500 workers some living with their families in the company quarters. While our aim is to produce food for ourselves, the biggest goal is to make employees replicate the garden’s good agricultural practices at home to boost food production,” says Stephen Musyoka, a lead crops research agronomist at Oserian.
The major pests they have to contend with are diamondback moth, aphids, cutworms and caterpillars that attack cabbages, spinach and sukuma wiki.
Caterpillars, aphids and leaf-miners attack mainly spinach, and whiteflies coriander and tomatoes while cutworms and onion thrips ravage onions.
“Besides pesticides, one way of eliminating the diseases and pests is through crop rotation. We have already identified which crops will occupy which section once we harvest,” says Musyoka adding that ‘friendly’ insects such as wasps that are prevalent in the area play a role in keeping the pests at bay, as they feed on them.
Part of what they harvested last week was shared among employees and the bulk delivered at the staff cafeteria where workers buy food at subsidised rates.
REINVEST IN CHOICE PROJECTS
“What we will harvest henceforth will be sold at subsidised rates to the staff cafeteria and staff with proceeds going to a kitty we have established,” says Mary Kinyua, a FairTrade’s officer at Oserian and the firm’s head of human resource.
Besides offering nutritional needs to staff, Kinyua says workers have benefitted in that they visit the farm from time to time to learn from the company’s agronomists and replicate what they get at their respective farms elsewhere.
“They also get a sense of companionship whenever they work together on the garden. We also intend to involve the staff’s children in the programme, through the schools we run in the company,” she says.
So far, Kinyua says they have used Sh1.9 million on the garden, but this will rise to Sh2.5 million as they expand by buying equipment and more inputs and paying the external workforce.
The money came from Fairtrade, a programme in which listed companies have their produces marked with the Fairtrade label hence sold at premium prices in global markets, with the proceeds from the sales going back to the employees of the respective companies, who in turn can reinvest in programmes of their choices.
She says their workers choose the garden.
From helping workers bond to boosting company’s output, workplace farming has many benefits
To many organisations, a garden is not an obvious place to boost work productivity and bond among staff members.
However, a good number of enterprises have started to consider farming and gardens as a key employee engagement tool, where the staff can put their input together while bonding hence come up with rewarding outcomes both in terms of profitability and productivity.
Employees’ collecting their contributions and working together in gardening can offer lessons about teamwork and persistence that are highly appropriate for replication in their offices or other aspects of their professional activities.
Human resources experts note that workplace gardens help the employees actualise an impression of work-life balance and their counteractions, thereby offsetting the ‘push’ or ‘work hard’ ethics in unison, with team members urging each other whenever they get out of the boardrooms that they should venture outdoors into the farm, whenever they can.
Friendships, companionship, a sense of comradeship and workplace relationships can be built in the gardening teams, with the solidarities and connections created infiltrating into other corporate activities hence boosting working conditions.
Further, company-sponsored farming gardens lead to an improved and more productive workforce, and lowering healthcare expenditures as fresh healthy produce is easily acquired from the garden, especially for the cafeterias, while still being an extra source of income, according to human resource experts.
Poultry keeping, small-scale dairy farming, vegetable gardening and horticulture growing are some of the farming activities that staff members can engage in to boost their productivity, while at the same time help them bond and build networks, hence progressing the company’s objectives simultaneously.
Prof Richard Mulwa, a horticulturist and specialist in plant biotechnology at Egerton University, says while the concept is not widely spread in the country at the moment, it is one that should be embraced as its benefits are immense.
“Bonding and getting a sense of camaraderie are gains that employees get through a firm’s involvement in this concept, and this, when replicated in the staff’s professional working conditions within the same organisation will increase their productivity and boost the company’s output,” says Prof Mulwa.
He adds that similarly, this concept exposes the employees to different farming ideas from the diverse brains involved in implementing the concept in the organisation.
“They can then replicate this in their different individual farms, hence boost their personal farming productivity,” he says.
Prof Mulwa notes that a near-similar project is run by the Anglican Church of Kenya, near Nyahururu, where those involved are benefitting as they get a steady supply of fresh vegetables and at the same time they have the opportunity to individually venture in small agribusinesses.
Sitting on 200,000 acres is the 47 year old farm that currently employs 4,100 people.