Two Kenyan Diaspora Doctors use technology to run village farm
As we enter this expansive farm, we are welcomed by six fierce German Shepherds. They go round our car as they sniff it and after establishing we are not dangerous guests, the gate man allows us in.
Although we had been well informed by our source that this is not another village poultry farm, what awaited us was beyond what we expected.
As we drove along the driveway, we noticed CCTV cameras and flood lights mounted at strategic points.
Welcome to Mitoto Poultry Farm, in Sango village, Trans Nzoia County, a hi-tech poultry unit where the owners have strategically tapped into the power of smart technology for maximum yields and efficiency.
Mitoto Poultry Farm is home to more than 5,000 birds of different species imported from France and UK.
As we make our way towards the neat reception, we receive a call from Dr Fredrick Ouko, one of the farm owners, who lives in the United Kingdom.
“Hallo, sorry for the long drive but we have been expecting you. Feel at home and ask as many questions as you can for the benefit of Kenyans,” Dr Ouko says.
He then calls the farm manager, Betty Sasala via video link and asks her why the seats at the visitors’ bay look dirty. At this point it hits us that all our movements are being monitored from the UK, thanks to the CCTV cameras on the farm.
Dr Ouko explains that he has an app that connects to the cameras enabling him to run operations at the farm smoothly.
To allow for seamless communication, at the visitors’ bay, there is a strong Wi-Fi connection that allows Smart Harvest team and Dr Ouko engage in an interview via Skype and WhatsApp video link.
This is the everyday mode of communication between the farm owners and their five workers ably led by Madam Sasala.
From the UK, Dr Ouko, a veterinary surgeon and his partner, Brian Okumu a medical doctor in Turkey, are able to monitor every farm operation.
“We previously relied on telephone but it was disastrous because the farm hands used to lie a lot to cover for their mischief. They could be far in their homestead, but lie to you that they are cleaning the chicken coops which they have not seen for a week! But now, they have to be at their best because we are watching them,” Dr Ouko says.
Other than monitoring the farm, the cameras also help bolster security at the farm.
“The cameras record 24/7 and we have access to the live images on our phones so we can visually see and direct all activities in the farm from here (UK),” says Dr Ouko via speakers mounted at the reception.
So how did they start this impressive 15-acre farm?
“Though now it looks all sophisticated, you will be surprised how simple we began,” he says. The project started in 2014 in a car garage, before the two childhood friends relocated abroad.
“We started with only 100 day-old chicks, the Kenbro breed. Using our skills and knowledge, we modified it into a poultry house. A year later, we imported 1,000 day-old chicks, the parent stock a breed from Sasso France and went big,” says Ouko.
They ordered the birds in three different lines, quick maturing birds that take 63 days and are ready for slaughtering and taken as meat, birds that take 90 days to mature and be slaughtered for meat and a slower growing breed typical to the rural chicken raised in free range system.
Ouko says when the parent of 500 birds had attained five months, they started laying eggs. In the market, they faced stiff competition, but they hacked it.
“The quality of the parent stock that we had imported from France was of superior quality and that means quality eggs and that gave us an edge in the market,” he says.
To stay in business with the influx of cheap eggs from Uganda, they strategically opted to stick to chicks hatching business.
Centre of excellence
They also tapped into agritourism — using their farm as a centre of excellence where local and international agri prenuers can learn international best husbandry and innovative methods of farming and also attract interest of Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) with regard to the new and promising breeds from abroad.
The new breeds include Light Sussex hen, a British breed of dual purpose which can be reared for meat and laying eggs and the Rhode Island Red, an American breed that is dual purpose. The breeds can be reared on free range environment in the rural environment and production is very high.
“We are multiplying this breed to sustain commercial production and benefit the rural farmer,” he says.
Other breeds are Lavender Pekins, Speckled Sussex, Copper Maran, cuckoo marans, lavender Brahama, Ayam Cemani, Norfolk grey, Cochin, Rhode Island Red and the blue egg laying Crested Cream legbar.
There is also White and brown silkie, Welsummer, Partridge Brahama, Minorca, Old English game, Oplington, cowpers blender, Japanese brandam, java and Sebright.
“With such a variety, we want to convert the Mitoto Poultry Farm into an educational centre where research institutions like Kalro and universities can have access to do research as well as serving as a National Genetics Reserve,” says Dr Ouko.
So far, Sasala, the farm manager, says they have a ready market in Kisumu, Eldoret, Trans Nzoia, West Pokot, Kakamega, Bungoma and Nairobi.
With the help of technology, Ouko says his partner and him can diagnose diseases or prescribe or change procedure for vaccinating the birds from thousands of miles away.
Other unique aspects on the farm is how it has been designed uniquely to make work easier for the many farmhands. Outside, the farm is surrounded by mini flyovers where people walk on top while the birds stay underneath which makes feeding easy. Ouko says the structure is good for security and keeping diseases at bay.
“Having sampled state-of-the-art technology abroad, we did our best to borrow these concepts and coming up with practical solutions that can work in a village set up and at the same time maintaining bio-security measures. The design enables our visitors to benefit from a rich educational tour, while the birds also enjoy their peace. This way production remains optimal,” says the vet.
Brilliant as the idea maybe, like all agri-businesses, it faces hiccups. One is the high cost of feeds and to counter this, they have started formulating their own poultry meals.
“To cut feed costs as well as maintain quality of the birds we rear, we started using chicken feed concentrates in making our own feeds. Our feed cost has now almost halved and now we have started realising on profits,” says Sasala.
‘Yes you can’
She adds: “To prepare the feed concentrates, we need three or four ingredients. We import them from Europe but in the course of this year, we plan to set up our own plant in Kenya,” says Ouko.
Getting quality incubators to expand the business has also been a nightmare.
This forced them to import three incubators from Europe with a capacity of 35,000 eggs and two incubators with a hatching capacity of 12,000 each.
“The eggs stay in the incubator for 18 days and then we transfer them to the hatchery. This is where hatching takes place and we sell the chicks when they are below one month,” says Dr Ouko.
The duo are honest enough to admit that even with smart technology, running the farm from the Diaspora is not a walk in the park.
“Yes we have good and bad days but we will not give up. Ours is a testimony that with a clear plan, hard work and commitment, all things are possible. We want to inspire and challenge our young people that if Brian and I can, they too can.”
By Nathan Ochunge and Hellen Miseda