By MANGOA MOSOTA
The two men dressed in white overalls, gloves and big hats made of reeds are busy working with brooms immersed in a pond of green water.
The two men are stirring spirulina, an algae rich in protein, to ensure proper agitation for its growth, and working beside the two men are three women and two other men harvesting the plant.
There is a perimeter brick wall around the farm, and from outside one cannot see what goes inside. But as you get past the gates of Dunga Spirulina Farm in Kisumu, you will see a rare but highly successful project one Jagpal Sandhu started four and half years ago.
The venture is spirulina farming and Sandhu says it has been nothing but a success. The entrepreneur, who trained in shipping ten years ago, learned about spirulina farming from the Internet and books now pockets about Sh25, 000 daily.
A year ago, Sandhu used to harvest less than one kilogramme of the product per day. Today he harvests an average of five kilogrammes every two days. A kilo goes for about Sh5,000, hence Sandhu makes about Sh375, 000 a month.
"About half of this amount is ploughed back on the investment, purchase of inputs such as fertilizer, packaging paper and salaries," says Sandhu. He has ten employees working in ten ponds.
His major customers are non-governmental organisations supporting people living with HIV/Aids and malnourished children in several parts of Nyanza and Western provinces.
Spirulina is rich in protein and vitamins and it is recommended for HIV/Aids sufferers, especially those on Anti-retroviral drugs. "There are a number of NGOs working with HIV/Aids sufferers that are keen on it. This is because spirulina is nutritious. I also supply pharmacy shops in Nairobi which sell to health-conscious people a supplement," explains Sandhu.
From two litres of algae, he received from a friend in France; Sandhu now has over 100, 000 litres, worth over Sh1 million at his farm. He has invested Sh8 million, most of it on a wall around the farm.
But he says simple farm can cost as low as Sh20, 000 to start. The wall ensured that domestic animals do not stray into the farm, and interfere with the pond. The capital came from his personal savings.
The harvesting of the spirulina is done after every two to three days, between 6am and 9am.
"The plant is collected from the pond with a thin wire mesh and squeezed between fine cloths to remove water," says the entrepreneur.
This forms spaghetti-like products, which are dried on solar dryer for six hours and until they turn into powder.
"After drying the powder is grinded and packed in special air tight and light proof bags, which give the product a shelf life of two years," he says.
He says the solar drier saves him the cost of using electricity, and is part of his effort to use green energy. He has a laboratory where he keeps and monitors quality of spirulina culture.
He says the alga requires sunlight for photosynthesis, but limited water. "Light is a basic condition for its growth. Since it is usually very hot, Nyanza and Western provinces are ideal for its growth," says Sandhu.
Sandhu has collaborated with a number of community groups and Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology in Kakemaga to market the plant. The major challenge is that many Kenyans are yet to know the plant’s nutritional value.
"Many people are yet to make the algae part of their meal," he says. This is the reason he has organised meetings with health officials to sensitise the people on spirulina’s nutritional value. He plans to train farmers as well.
"I would like them to see it as an income-generating activity, which can improve their economic status," says Sandhu.
He says spirulina is one of the most environmentally friendly forms of agriculture.
"Due to changing global climatic conditions, this would be the crop farmers should be encouraged to grow," says Sandhu.
He says due to decreasing land sizes, global warming and reduction of water, spirulina would be ideal in such harsh conditions.