Grown by farmers across the country, legumes feature regularly on many Kenyan dinner tables. Unknown to many, one particular legume has held a special, almost ceremonial place at the dinner table longer than the rest, and literally bonded destinies of entire communities − pigeon peas.
Long before local farmers started farming maize and beans, pigeon peas held a special place on many farms in the Kenyan highlands. Such is their energy- rich nutrition package that the little creamish legumes gained ceremonial status.
“They were among the most valued delicacies; a wedding, dowry ceremony or any other traditional function was not complete without njugu (pigeon peas), says 90-year-old Loise Wamuyu. Today, these little pulses still hold aspecial place in dowry negotiation ceremonies and marriage ceremonies among communities in central Kenya, so much so that it is still considered a taboo to serve one’s in-laws with any meal that did not have pigeon peas on the menu. Sections of the communities still refer even to the most modern weddings as a festival of eating pigeon peas. Easy to grow and drought resistant, pigeon peas were a favourite crop in dry parts of the country. The drier the land, the richer the pigeon peas it produced, both in taste and harvest.
“They are very rare, even during our days, we had to travel to Ukambani from Nyeri to buy them, that is why you hear some people talk of njugu cia Ikamba (pigeon peas from Ukambani),” says the nonagenarian, whose strength, for her age is proof enough of the potent energy that is packed in pigeon peas.
The historical nutritional value of pigeon peas has earned them another first on the food chain – they are perhaps the only legumes whose supply rarely outpaces demand. In the unpredictable market for legumes, the demand for pigeon peas quietly thrives on. A small band of farmers has been keen to cash on the historical shortage of pigeon peas.
“Pigeon peas have a guaranteed market throughout the year. But the shortage will always be there and may even worsen as most young farmers avoid the crop associated with the older generation, they want quick money which they get from horticulture,” says Daniel Wanjau, a farmer at Kambirwa in Murang’a. He intercrops his peas with maize every season, giving him an average of 10 bags of 90kg from his one-acre farm.
“I take the peas as a bonus after harvesting the maize. I sell each bag at Ksh6,750 (US$67.5). Farmers avoid planting the peas since they take long to mature and harvest compared to beans and other legumes that take about three months. Pigeon peas are annual,” he says.
He prefers pigeon peas to beans because they are hardy and fit into unpredictable weather patterns. “I live in an area with unpredictable rainy seasons; excessive rains destroy all the beans within a few days while extreme droughts affect their production. Even if the season favours beans, the cereals flood the market fetching poor prices, as little as Ksh1,500 (US$15) per 90 kilo bag, but pigeon peas prices remain stable due to their historical shortage,” he says.
Mwanzia Ndolo, a farmer from Kandara in Murang’a also has a tale to tell about why he is in love with pigeon peas. Such is the quiet demand that from the peas he has purchased more than three acres of land in less than five years since he took them up as a commercial venture. He is among farmers growing the peas commercially, attracting hundreds of traders from all over the country. “Middlemen buy cereals at Ksh2,000 (US$20) per 90 kilogram bag, but selling as a group gives us a bargaining power. We allow the impatient farmers to sell their grain at throwaway prices then sell a month or two later at not less than Ksh6,750,” he says. Initially, the farmer was intercropping the peas with maize, leaving a row of about 15 metres, but he has reduced the spacing to about one square metre, thus increasing his production from an average of five bags per acre to 15 or 20 bags depending on weather conditions. According agriculture experts, when sowing a single seed per pit, about four kilos of seeds are required at a spacing of 75cm x 60cm. Farmers opting for two seeds require eight kilogrammes per acre.
Read the full story in edition 32 of Smartfarmer magazine.