How water is helping grow onions and mangoes in Kenya

‘A learning day in Kenya’

By Ken Mellish

We are often asked why do we go to Kenya and the expected answer is to help Kenyans. This is a reason but the other reason is to learn. Yesterday was a learning day for me. First, I must explain the growing conditions here. Near the mountain where we live conditions are good, not great, but there is enough to support crops. Maize needs one more rain, beans are being harvested and there is enough grass for cows. When you travel out further from the mountain it becomes dryer until the crops have failed totally. They had a nice start when we were here in November but no rain since then. However, if you have water, anything can be grown with the highly productive soil and unlimited sunshine.


I traveled with Mwenda, our horticulturalist, to visit the northern dry area and our first stop was the onions grown by women’s groups supported by FHF through the GAC Canada “More food, Better food” project. The area was supplied with water from a water line which originates high up on Mount Kenya. The fields were equipped with drip irrigation lines and the onion transplants were set just before we visited in November. The onions were now ready to harvest. Streight rows of red onion of a good size for the Kenyan market. Today the onions would be harvested and brokers would come and buy them. Hundreds of kilos of onions in an area where the goats are wandering to look for food.  

We traveled slowly along some bumpy dusty roads until we came to Anne‘s small farm. Suddenly, we see patches of bright green in contrast with the brown, dried vegetation by the roads.

FHF, again with GAC support, has equipped Anne with a 5,000 liter water tank which she has connected to the Buuri water scheme. The water from this scheme is available in rotation so a tank is necessary for a continuous supply. Anne is growing kale, cabbage, potatoes and sweet potatoes. In an area where people have little to eat she is producing food for sale. She has planted avocado trees and Mwenda has promised to come back and graft some improved scions on them to make the plants highly productive.

We came away with a small bag of new potatoes. The dream of all PE Islanders, new potatoes in January.  I learned that this area is highly productive if you have access to water and the ability to put it to work.

On our last stop we visited a mango farmer, Mr Stephen Kiambi. He has one acre with a small water spring and every inch of the land is producing. The main crop is producing mangos but there is also citrus and grasses for cow feed. I remember five varieties of mangos from his farm. This spreads the market season and provides a nice variety of fruit. The trees were hanging with huge fruit and under neath the fruit there were a variety of grasses to feed his cows. Because of this very high quality he is receiving a retail price at his farm to add to his productivity.

One innovative item on the farm was trap for the flies that lay eggs that hatch and damage the mangos. The trap was a plastic bottle with slots in the side of it and a pheromone inside to attract the males of the species. They are attracted from one kilometer away and enter the bottle but can not escape. So he does not have to spray this mango trees. We departed the farm of this mango aficionado with a bag of mangos and new insight into how even in a difficult area smart farmers thrive. 

We returned home and by this time it was getting dusk. There is no twilight at the equator and we went from dusk to dark quickly. We learned that Kenyan roads are very interesting when night falls.