$770 per acre: Why Kenyan farmers are turning to sunflowers

Marystella Wabwoba packaging sunflower oil in branded bottles

Marystella Wabwoba packaging sunflower oil in branded bottles.

By Nathan Ombuni, bird story agency

Maize and sugarcane farmers in Kenya are now turning to sunflower, which grows faster, is less labour-intensive and gives higher yields.

When cooking oil and animal feed prices became too high for Kenyan farmer Marystella Wabwoba, she decided to produce her own. Today, sunflowers are all she grows.

“About five years ago, I realised I could grow sunflower on the farm and use it to produce oil which has no chemicals as preservatives and use its by-product to feed my animals,” said the small-scale farmer.

Wabwoba’s homestead in the village of Sinoko in Bungoma County is a flurry of activity, with a constant stream of customers coming to buy sunflower oil.

After harvesting the sunflower seeds, she crushes them using an oil press to extract the oil, then uses the by-product as feed for dairy animals, pigs and poultry.

“Given that I’m an agricultural officer, I also mobilised women and youth groups and educated them on the need to venture into sunflower farming. A few bought the idea and embraced the venture,” said Wabwoba, who has a PhD in food security and sustainable development.

“On an acre piece of land, you get at least 1,000kg of sunflower seeds. When you crush it, for every 4kg of sunflower seed cake, you get a litre of cooking oil. When you harvest 1,000kgs of sunflower seeds, after crushing you get 250 litres of sunflower cooking oil, translating to Ksh100,000 ($770) per acre,” Wabwoba explained.

The farmer has a seven-acre piece of land on which she grows sunflowers – and from where she retails her oil.

“I sell a half litre of sunflower cooking oil at Ksh400 ($3.08), five litres at Ksh1,800 ($13.86), 10 litres at Ksh3,500 ($26.94) and 20 litres goes at Ksh4,500 ($34.64).”

Wabwoba not only grows her own sunflowers but is also involved in contract farming, buying in seed from other farmers in the community.

“I have another 20 farmers, each with an acre for growing sunflower. Last season, they produced 20,000kg of sunflower which I bought from them at Ksh100 ($0.77). After crushing, I got 5,000 litres of sunflower oil,” she said.

Bungoma County farmer Joyce Wamono grows sunflowers in the Sirisia constituency. She sells the by-product of the oil she produces and says that for every 100kg of sunflower seeds, 75kg becomes by-product. She sells that, at Ksh70 ($0.54) per kilogram.

Wamono said she previously grew maize. But it would take six months to mature, she said, and she would get only four 50kg bags which could not sustain her needs. On the same piece of land she now gets three times her previous income.

“We can plant sunflower, produce vegetable cooking oil and sell, then use the money we get to buy foodstuffs like maize and beans that we cannot produce in our small pieces of land,” Wamono said.

She also explained that a sunflower crop is more drought-resistant and its oil has no cholesterol. It is recognised for helping in reducing non-communicable diseases like hypertension and cancer that people get by using chemically-preserved cooking oil, she added.

Besides Bungoma, sunflowers are also grown in Kenya’s Kakamega, Meru, Homa Bay and Kajiado counties, as well as parts of the North Rift and Coastal region.

Vincent Wechabe, a sunflower farmer from Bumula constituency, said he abandoned sugarcane farming in favour of sunflower, three years ago.

“I can’t compare sunflower farming proceeds with sugarcane at all. The (sugar mill) factory will give all farm inputs and you provide labour and after a two-year wait, on my five acre piece of land, out of the gross of Ksh525,000 ($4,000) I used to get after selling cane to the factory, I would remain with Ksh75,000 ($577). But with sunflower, I get a bumper harvest after 115 days,” said Wechabe.

Wechabe, also a livestock official in his county, said sunflower was previously relegated to a second-class crop and maize was prioritised as a first-class crop.

“The call now is to put sunflower in its right place of hierarchy and stop the notion that it’s a second-class crop, if we want to solve the food insecurity situation in the country,” he said.

/bird story agency