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.”

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