How solar energy transformed a Kenyan herb farm

In a lead-up to announcing this year’s Global LEAP Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge (OGCCC) finalists, a team from Efficiency for Access visited two Kenya-based field testing participants. The first visit was to a family-owned agribusiness situated in Thika, a bustling agricultural and industrial town about an hour’s drive from Nairobi. The team was eager to have a first-hand view of the Solar Cooling Engineering cold room in use and learn more about the owner’s experience.

On arrival in Thika town, we drove about 20 minutes into a lush residential estate where Kamau Mbarire and his wife, Jane, warmly welcomed us. The couple jointly runs a profitable and growing herbs-for-export business, Jungle Harvest Limited, with Jane more actively involved in the day-to-day operations.

As the team explored the 0.75 acres of land under cultivation, Jane told us of her family’s nearly two-decade-long journey of establishing their now-thriving business. Since occupying the property, Jane’s family has tried their hand in various ventures, including dairy, pig, and poultry farming and producing bananas, avocadoes, vegetables, and strawberries. Of the initial pursuits, strawberries had been the most successful. Unfortunately, the success of the strawberries was short-lived — with wild monkeys in the neighborhood stealing the ripe strawberries before she could gather them for sale. Deterred but not defeated, Jane erected a greenhouse where she would plant the strawberries away from the cheeky thieves. However, this solution did not last, as the strawberries were not thriving under the canopy of the greenhouse. She also noted that the quality of the fruit did not match earlier harvests when the strawberries were planted under direct sunlight. This led to her exploring herb growing in 2018, which has proven less susceptible to the interference of the monkeys. The family now grows several herbs, including basil, coriander, dill, mint, rosemary, sage, tarragon, and thyme.

Since settling on their cash crop of choice, the family shifted their sights to how best they could maximize the farm’s income generation. Following a recommendation from their son Francis (a Graduate in AgroEcosystems and Environment Management), Jane and Kamau chose to invest in an on-site cold storage facility in late 2021. They received financing for the Solar Cooling Engineering brand cold room through a loan that they are currently servicing.

Before purchasing the cold room, they had to hire refrigerated trucks to keep their produce fresh for transport. This was not a sustainable approach for them. It involved their workers spending long hours during harvest days to ensure all orders were sorted and packed in time for the scheduled pick-up and delivery. It was also costly, with daily truck hires averaging USD $60–77. Now, with the cold room, Jane can store over 1000 kilograms of herbs for up to a week and take more time to sort and pack the product for transport to the airport.

Jane and Kamau are no strangers to solar. They have been using a SunCulture solar water pump to irrigate their crops since 2015. “With solar, we are good to go anytime,” Jane remarked.

Since acquiring the cold room, Jane and Kamau’s herb capacity has grown from about 50–80 kgs to over 300 kgs, nearly doubling their income from the farm. With their increased output, they now supply higher-value export clients with larger orders instead of local clients who make small orders fetching lower returns. The family also appreciates that the precise temperature control of the cold room enables herb preservation in optimal conditions, meeting the high export quality standards.

Not only has the cold room benefited Jane and Kamau’s bottom line, but it has also enabled them to empower their local community. Jane mentioned that, aside from Dan, the farm manager, she prefers to employ young single mothers on the farm. In this way, young mothers can earn an income to support themselves and their children. Additionally, Jane distributes fresh vegetables to neighboring households which she purchases in bulk and stores in the cold room, generating some extra income.

Jane and Kamau confirmed that the cold room had been a worthy investment and a means of further expanding their business. With the extra income brought about by the cold room, they are constructing a larger herb propagation shed and plan to lease land from their neighbors, extending their farm by about an acre. With these plans in place, they will grow more herbs, take up larger orders and expand the business.