Pastoralists in West Pokot are raking in millions of shillings after shifting to horticulture following decades of cattle raids and banditry.
Farmers in Batei in Pokot Central sub-county earned Sh137.28 million from onions from 798 acres under cultivation while farmers from Pokot South sub-county generated Sh179.196 million from Irish potatoes.
The income from onions increased by about Sh52 million compared to Sh85.44 million the farmers generated in 2012 due to what agriculture experts attributed to a shift from livestock to crop production.
“Most of the crop is grown under irrigation although some farmers have it under rain-fed, or a combination of the two,” said Philip Tingaa, West Pokot sub-county agriculture officer.
He said high prevalence of pests and diseases, poor infrastructure and marketing constraints, including exploitation by middlemen, were some of the challenges facing onion production in the semi-arid county.
Despite the challenges, onion cultivation has proved to be a lucrative venture for the pastoralists who had long shunned commercial agricultural activity.
“Livestock rearing has been our sole source of livelihood. Maize, sorghum and finger millet are grown on small-scale for subsistence consumption,” said Agnes Chetotum, one of the onion farmers.
Mr Tingaa said potato farmers earned Sh179.196 million last season up from Sh170.86 million in 2012 as more pastoralists diversified to cultivation of cash crops driven by high returns.
“Unreliable pastoralism/nomadism has made the community vulnerable to cattle rustling and the devastating effects of drought are driving pastoralists in the region to invest in agro-pastoralism.”
He said that the county earned Sh22.56 million from carrots and a further Sh22.42 million from bananas as more farmers capitalised on irrigated agriculture along rivers Wei Wei and Sebit to generate more income and improve their livelihoods.
“The conducive climatic conditions that prevail in the county allow growing of a variety of crops, from temperate to tropical ones,” said Mr Tingaa.
The county earned Sh7.95 million from 159 tonnes of watermelon and Sh5.24 million from 131 tonnes of bananas. “Since the introduction onion farming, income generation and the living standards of the locals have improved significantly.
Ortum town has attracted many investors in real estate and agricultural enterprises,” the agriculture official said.
He noted that the farmers had to be trained on proper land preparation and how to plant and take care of their crop for better returns.
“We had to wait for too long before maize or sorghum crop matured, and the harvest in most cases was low due to unpredictable climatic conditions,” said Chebokoki Arumoriang’, another beneficiary of the project who harvested four tonnes of onions from her half-acre piece of land, pocketing Sh200,000.
She also grows a variety of vegetables, including cabbages, kales and watermelons.
Mr Tingaa said most farmers faced challenges in adopting modern production techniques to cut down on costs and access better markets for their crop.