In Summary
  • But he warns that loss in farming is not a one-off affair and cites other years like 1999 and 2000 when farmers in the South Rift suffered massive crop failure.

When I first met Hugo Wood at his Olerai Farm outside the Maasai Mara Game Reserve four years ago, his concern then was the stem rust which was ravaging wheat in Africa and the Middle East.

Known as the polio of agriculture, the Ug99, — scientifically named after its country of origin, Uganda, and the year it struck — is a virulent disease that decimates wheat farms annually, and threatens the lives of at least one billion people worldwide.

I had travelled to Kenya’s biggest wheat belt to do a story for a new agriculture magazine on how one of East Africa’s most mechanised farmers was coping with the crop disease and flourishing where others had failed.

I returned to Narok last Wednesday, this time not to write about Hugo Wood’s flour milling factory, or his tens of tractors and combine harvesters, or his thousands of acres of wheat, maize and horticulture crops, or even his pedigree dairy and choice beef cattle.

I wanted to know how a man who in 1984 sold straw to a bank to repay a Sh25 million loan, following a devastating drought, had picked himself up and risen to the heights of agriculture, accumulating an estimated wealth of Sh700 million by 2010.

Like a war veteran regaling his listeners with his adventures in Burma or Somalia, he told us, matter-of-factly, that he had grown because he had made the most mistakes.

Across the fence to the north, overlooking the Ngulot Hills and the Mara River, tractors preparing land for the planting season hummed on.

Mr Wood attributed his rise from the ashes of his scorched wheat to persistence and the trust of the banks and input companies.

“I had taken a Sh25 million loan and put it into 8,000 acres of wheat, which was all wiped out by drought. It was devastating,” he said, the furrows on his face deepening as the weaver birds chirruped in the Olerai (Maa for acacia) trees lining his compound, sending a cool breeze in the sweltering Narok heat.

He, however, managed to pull himself up and went back to the bank.

“I told the manager that I was going into irrigation down in the Mara,” he said. The manager agreed to support him. They had worked together for six years since he had arrived in Narok in 1977 armed only with a tractor and plenty of hope.

Now his hope of making it big, a dream he had harboured since his days at London University, was going up in the dust raised by the vicious drought, perhaps the worst in Kenya since independence.

“He asked me what I had and I said I had the wheat straw. He said bring it on, and this covered a bit of the loan. I owe a lot to the banks and chemical companies like Syngenta who gave us time to recover. They supported us until we recovered.”

Diversifying also helped him start afresh.

“I got out of the crops that were drought stricken and diversified into drought resistant ones. When I went into irrigation, I found a more stable income. Then my wife (Rachel) and I decided to scale down. We said no to more expansion.

“So we have scaled down to 3,000 acres of wheat (from 8,000) and 2,000 of maize and diversified into green beans and avocado. We do a few hundred acres of avocado.”

But he warns that loss in farming is not a one-off affair and cites other years like 1999 and 2000 when farmers in the South Rift suffered massive crop failure.

“One thing to do is to cut back on everything as you possibly can. Sell off any excess machinery.”

In the early years, when they lived in a tent on the land which his interior designer wife Rachel terms as a migratory route for animals, the couple also battled elephants, lions, zebra and wildebeest. And despite owning part of the land, Mr Wood also leases land and says it can be profitable if managed well.

“Leasing land can be profitable. I lease nearly all the land on wheat and maize. The irrigated land is ours. I lease at Sh4,000 an acre, and you need to harvest nine bags an acre if you are to break even. We get up to 12 bags.”

A great believer in value addition, Mr Wood, the proprietor of Olerai Millers Ltd, adds up to Sh16 profit per bag by milling his own wheat.

“We have also done more dairy and beef cattle, which feed from maize and wheat by-products. I have only 200 borana animals, which is a small number compared to my neighbours, the Maasai,” he chuckles, but does not add that with his 40 jersey cows, he supplies his neighbours with hundreds of litres of milk daily.

He believes the future of agriculture is in genetically modified crops. “GM is a very useful tool. It is a piece of technology which we are allowing to pass us by, yet 90 per cent of South African farmers grow GM. Argentina, the US, name it, have all gone GM.

“GM is particularly helpful to the small farmers as it could save them a lot from such pests as the stalkborer and weeding,” says the 66-year-old alumnus of Pembrook House School, Gilgil.

His parents — the legendary flying doctor Michael Wood and his wife Susan — had emigrated from England to Tanzania in 1975 and then finally moved to Kenya.

To what extent does his academic training in agriculture or his home of origin, contribute to the success of his agri-business empire?

“Farming is now a more African thing than it is a European thing. Farming is also specific and I have learnt nearly everything by making mistakes. The more mistakes I have made the better I have become,” says the father of four who can often be found spraying his fields of wheat in his helicopter.

He is buoyant that agriculture in Kenya can only get better and urges farmers to rotate their crops. “I see a lot of maize year in, year out. Give maize a break. You can do other crops which may not be as lucrative as maize, but in the long run, it will be lucrative as maize will do better on that land after sometime. There should also be more use of hybrid seeds. You get at least 20 per cent more when you use certified seeds,” he says.

And he should know. For he produces his own hybrid maize seed — Olerai 22 and Olerai 46 as well as the new Olerai Tego-Wema. The latter variety is partly financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“It is also a question of making sure you are not late for planting, which can be ensured by more mechanisation. Follow up with chemicals and top dressing to get top yields.”

While wheat can be lucrative, he says, it is also a delicate and capital intensive crop. For when it rains, wheat farmers are damned as stem rust ravages the crop with a vengeance; and when the skies refuse to open up, they are equally doomed, as the crop shrivels, wilts away and dies.

He regrets that the warehouse receipting concept introduced in 2009 to cushion farmers from low grain prices has not picked up well because “banks have not come on board wholeheartedly.”

“When your grain is with the National Cereals and Produce Board, the banks should accept that as collateral and advance you a fraction of your money. Now they require insurance and all manner of conditions which are really inhibiting.”

He advises farmers to pool resources to break even faster. “Look at precision technology, for instance, even small-scale farmers can pool resources to buy and use the equipment which helps maximise water and inputs by directing the seed, fertiliser and chemical to where it is needed.”

He says there are companies selling minimum tool machinery — equipment that enables the least cultivation possible — for small-scale farmers. The technology is important as it reduces the breakdown of soil, trapping more moisture for the crop.

Mr Wood urges farmers to buy inputs in bulk. “For instance, we at the Cereal Growers Association Sacco are planning to buy this equipment in bulk and reduce cost for our members.”