Ken Kinuthia and his wife Beth in their strawberry farm at ol Jororok in Nyandarua County
Nyandarua Couple’s journey of resilience: From hawking to building a strawberry empire
A decade ago, Kenneth Kinuthia was a lumberjack, working across the country to find the best timber from various forests, cutting down trees and selling off the wood to dealers across the country.
Armed with a diesel powered saw and other high powered tools, he spent his time travelling from one region to the next carrying out a business he had learned as a teenager.
His wife Beth settled at their home in Oljororok, Nyandarua County, with their children. She planted cabbages and carrots on her farm to feed the family and sell the rest.
“I did not know of any other way to make money to support my family, other than through logging. While my wife settled into rural life, I frowned at her constant push to plant cabbages and carrots on the farm,” Kinuthia recalls.
He had never taken farming seriously his entire life.
That was until he was out of a job. In the early 2000s the Government cracked down on logging across the country and Kinuthia got caught up in the new restrictions that made it harder to maintain his business.
“My business took a real hit when I lost my equipment during one of the logging jobs and I came back home dejected and with no prospects on how to revive the business,” Kinuthia says.
By this time, his wife’s horticulture farm had expanded and attracted clients from across the country. But given his negative attitude towards farming, Kinuthia was not about to join Beth in the farm, dismissing her venture as a passing phase.
“Having been raised in a farming family, I understood the value of maintaining the venture, and I did not give up despite the challenges,” Beth says.
However, for jobless Kinuthia, time was fast running out and his wife had given him an ultimatum to find something useful to do.
One day, tired of living with a jobless husband, Beth gave all the money she had saved from selling her farm produce for several months to Kinuthia and asked him to start a business of his choice.
“She told me it was time to get my life back on track. I was shocked, and it was a wake-up call,” says Kinuthia.
Two days later, he made up his mind that he would after all join his wife in the farm. The couple walked into a bank and opened their first account together, and KenBet Investments was born.
“I made the decision to clear the rest of our four-and-a-half-acre piece of land to pave way for farming. I spent days clearing bushes and burning charcoal which we would sell to make more money,” Kinuthia says.
Their cabbage venture went well at first and they started getting orders from as far as Mombasa. However, the vegetable soon flooded the market and prices started dipping fast.
That is when they decided to diversify, and they reached out to a strawberry farmer in Limuru who offered to train them on how to grow the fruit.
“We allowed him to use a quarter-acre of our farm as a demo plot with the hope that other farmers would join in. Despite inviting 200 farmers to our farm for the training nobody showed up,” says Kinuthia.
That, however, did not kill their spirit. The couple planted the chandler variety of strawberries, which they say has longer shelf life, of three to seven days when chilled and produces bigger and sweeter fruits throughout the year.
“The same strawberry runners we purchased eight years ago have helped us to reproduce the crop we have now, we continue to tend it even today and it is still productive,” Kinuthia says.
No sooner had the Kinuthias had the first harvest than they encountered their first and greatest challenge. They could not find market for the fruits.
With this realisation, the couple decided to hawk the produce to their neighbours and at Oljororok shopping centre.
“We were so desperate that we were willing to go door to door to sell the fruits that nobody had heard about at the time,” Beth recalls.
However, lady luck smiled on them and they were able to sell off their entire harvest in one day, much to their surprise.
For months they continued to hawk the fruits in other neighbouring towns, Nyahururu, Nakuru, Naivasha and soon travelled as far as Nairobi with nothing but backpacks and paper-bags of ripe strawberry fruits.
Eventually they approached supermarket chains such as Naivas and Tuskys that started taking orders of up to 1,500kg per week.
Today, Mr and Mrs Kinuthia receive daily orders from local markets across the country and weekly orders for export across the region.
The business has expanded to other berries such as gooseberries and raspberries in a separate farm in Rumuruti and the couple also makes jam and juice from the fruits.
“We have learned a lot from our tribulations, we must work as a unit and make every decision together. To be successful you need to be hands-on as a farmer, management without supervision will destroy your farm,” Beth advises.
To expand the venture, they had to propagate the chandler runners and currently have over 20,000 plants on their farms.
When planting, the strawberries plants are spaced 30cm by 60cm between them.
“Chandler strawberries should be transplanted in well fertilised soil and watered constantly, with one acre of land requiring 40,000litres of water per week. They are big drinkers but this ensures they produce high yields,” says Kinuthia.
To ensure high quality of the fruits it is important to maintain a low PH of between 0 and 1. The couple uses organic methods to control pests and diseases.
The farm has employed at least 100 workers who work their daily, tending crops that need weeding, mulching, watering, pruning, fertiliser application and harvesting.
“Strawberries are sensitive and can be affected by diseases such as bostritis and pests such as slugs, birds, thrips and worms. Even human beings are a threat to the produce,” Kinuthia says.
One of the ways they control the birds is using nets and slings shots. The farm has also stopped using sprinklers to avoid spreading bostritis and other fungal diseases.
Beth says their faith has kept them focused and grounded in the venture. Now they have managed to buy a refrigerated truck to transport their produce.
Kinuthia says passion and commitment helped them to learn to always keep abreast of the latest technologies.
“We are currently working on setting up one acre of land with mist sprinklers and nets, which is the future of farming strawberries. I wake up every day at 3am to look up the latest technologies online. A farmer must stay one step ahead to remain successful,” he says.