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May 28, 2007

Smallholder farmers take to butternut farming in Kenya_May2007

Microfinance banks in Kenya are offering loans to small-scale horticulturists who are bringing in high returns for a little-known, but lucrative, pumpkin. The Murata Coffee Farmers Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO) general manager, Johnson Maina, said low-interest loans were being offered to farmers who are investing heavily in the butternut pumpkin, whose value for both food and cosmetic purposes is being more widely realised.

The pumpkin, also known as 'butternut squash,' has solid market value and demand both in Kenya and abroad. SACCO also plans to link farmers with exporters to cut out middlemen. With good crop husbandry, the warm season fruit can yield between 20 and 25 tonnes of fruit per year.

Farmer John Kinyua said he was making better returns from the crop, which yields 30 to 35 butternuts from space that would have given him just 10 normal pumpkins. "This crop also has more usable flesh than the pumpkin," he said. "It is cheap to farm and maintain owing to the low amounts of water, fertiliser and pesticides required," he added.

Another butternut farmer, Monicah Wambui, said the crop had helped her pay for her children's education. Ms. Wambui said she took a loan from a bank in Murang?a to start tending the crop on her half-acre shamba. "Farmers flock to my farm to learn how to grow them," she said. Wambui supplies several market traders from as far away as Nairobi with the crop. She said she was welcoming the move by micro-finance banks to lend farmers money to start their own projects. Wambui said she planned to expand to two acres, banking on the promised linkage with
exporters by the credit cooperative.

Dr. Patrick Maundu from the Kenya Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge (Kenrik), a group that documents indigenous food plants with potential to improve food security in Kenya, said the demand for fruits and vegetables like the butternut was growing, in part due to their health benefits. The butternut has a high concentration of nutrients such as vitamin A and iron. According to research by Kenrik, the fruit is also ideal for farmers with small gardens, as it requires less space than other horticultural crops. It's long shelf-life and small size make it especially attractive to traders.

While Kenyan agricultural policy has generally emphasised cash crops for export and neglected funding of traditional food crops, Maundu warned that some food varieties might disappear and be replaced by commercial varieties. He added that the species should be collected, documented and preserved for future generations and reference.

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