Pigeon peas can improve the returns of farmers in semi-arid lands, if well produced, stored and marketed. Every August, buyers converge at Ithanga area at Kiambu-Murang’a-Machakos counties border for the popular pigeon peas, also known as nzuu (in Kikamba).
The cereal is preserved for big occasions such as weddings, funeral’s because of its nutritional value and high cost. Though very few farmers grow it, the Agikuyu, Aembu, Meru, and Akamba communities rarely miss it in their budget and diet. Ithanga farmers have a special bond with nzuu, treating is as a cash crop and their lifeline, taking advantage of inadequate supplies from other regions to boost their income.
However, Mwanzia Ndolo from Ngiriria village says farmers get minimal benefit as they are exploited by brokers who buy a 90 -kilogramme sack at as low as Sh1, 800. “The cost of 2kg tin is never less than Sh200, all year round meaning the traders earn not less than Sh9, 000 per the 90kg sack.
If they bought at half that price from us, farmers would be millionaires,” says Ndolo. The nzuu farmers here inter- crop the pigeon peas with maize, but more attention is given to the peas due to favourable weather conditions and guaranteed market.
“After double digging, we plant the peas first, then wait for it to rain for two to three consecutive days before planting maize and beans later. Most farmers space 10 feet between rows and one foot from crop to crop,” the farmer says. Planting is done during the December short rains and harvested from August when the rains subside.
The crop does well in poor soils with minimal rainfall but grows faster and produces more harvest when water is plenty. “We encourage farmers to grow pigeon peas because of the favourable weather conditions and lucrative market, but farmers prefer faster growing crops such as vegetables and other horticultural crops,” says agricultural expert Peter Njoroge.
He says pigeon peas is among crops that improve soils, has a high nutrition and long shelf life. “There are many varieties of pigeon peas — tall, small and dwarf but the variety that grows to about seven feet is most common in most dry parts of the country. Different varieties mature at different times.
Some mature faster while others are slow,” says Njoroge. He encourages farmers in cool climates to grow the faster maturing varieties. Pigeon peas are grown from seeds which take two to three weeks to germinate. Initially, the plant grows very slowly in the first three months that a new farmer could conclude it has stagnated.
Plants start flowering at two to three months and a farmer can harvest the first green pods at four to five months, depending on the variety and planting time.
A farmer can pick the pods green or leave them on the plant to dry. Pigeon peas are heavy croppers and the seed pods grow in big clusters at the end of the branches making it easy to harvest it either dry or green. The many leaves on the shrubs can be harvested and used for mulching. Pigeon pea is a staple food crop rich in proteins.
The peas can also be ground into flour. Pigeon peas is a multi-purpose plant whose leaves, flowers, seed pods and seeds are used to feed animals while the shrubs provide firewood. The flowers, which are yellow and reddish in colour attract bees which are important in pollination.
The plants have deep tap roots that make it possible to break through hard pans and improve the soil structure. With proper husbandry, an acre can produce between 15 and 25 90kg bags but most farmers in Ithanga harvest an average of seven sacks, since they use the wrong spacing, inter cropping nzuu with maize and beans.
For commercial farming, a farmer should sow the nzuu seed at three inches deep. Pigeon pea is sensitive to waterlogging and its therefore advisable to plant it in well drained soil for good root and nodule development.
When sowing a single seed per pit, about 4 kgs of seeds are required for a spacing of 75cm x 60cm and 8kgs if a farmer opts for 2 seeds per pit. Reducing spacing is discouraged in fertile soils with irrigation water. Soaking the seeds between six hours and 12 hours helps improve germination.
Pigeon peas are drought-resistant, and can even do well in areas with less than 650 mm annual rainfall. Ndolo does not sell his produce during the harvest season when brokers exploit them, but waits for at least two months to sell at Sh100 per kg, thus earning an average of Sh9, 000 per sack.