It hasn’t rained on John Mwema’s farm in over a month. But on his one-acre piece of land stand thousands of green maize plants.
“I grow baby corn,” said Mwema, bending to examine a bunch of tiny corn cobs. “It is a type of corn that is three to four times quicker to harvest and uses less water than regular corn.”
Farmers in the eastern Kenyan village of Ngoliba and across the country are increasingly faced with water scarcity. Some 2.7 million people across half of Kenya’s 47 counties have been affected by drought, which the government recently declared a national disaster.
A growing number of farmers in Kenya are switching to growing baby corn – an immature ear that is harvested early and typically eaten whole – as a way around unreliable rainfall.
While normal maize takes more than four months to mature, often drying up during that period due to a lack of rain, baby corn takes less than two months before it can be harvested, explained Mwema.
“This means it requires less water, and when there is no rain I just collect water from the nearby river,” he said.
Mwema said that thanks to the crop’s short growth cycle, he can harvest as much as 7 tonnes of baby corn in eight months, as opposed to only one ton of normal maize over that period.
But it is attractive prices that keep him growing the crop on his farm.
One kilogram fetches him 200 Kenyan shillings (about $2) if sold to outlets like Nakumatt, a nationwide supermarket, and 100 shillings when sold to neighbors buying directly from his farm.
That’s much more than the 35 shillings he used to get from local buyers for 1 kg of regular maize.
“Nothing from the crop is wasted,” said Mwema, adding that even the green stalks are sold to livestock farmers as fodder.
Martha Musyoka, a scientist at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, said baby corn is a promising export due to high demand in Europe.
“Low in fat and high in potassium, it is a nutritious and popular product,” she said.
Muskoya estimates about 1,000 farmers in central and eastern Kenya now grow baby corn – compared to only 100 a few years ago – to meet rising demand.
The crop, however, requires regular checks to ensure it is not attacked by pests, she said.
Joseph Muthengi is another keen grower of baby corn, which he used to sell to buyers such as Kenya Fresh, a company selling fresh produce for export to the EU market.
“The financial returns were such that a few years ago I was planning to buy extra land to plant more baby corn,” said Muthengi.
His luck turned, however, when the EU introduced regulations in 2013 requiring produce to meet certain conditions, with farmers required to disclose the food’s origin and the type of chemicals used to grow it.
“Kenya Fresh started rejecting our products, saying they didn’t meet size or chemical standards,” recalled Muthengi, who now grows beans and tomatoes to supplement the revenue he gets from baby corn.
“One time as many as 10 crates of produce were rejected, and we had to sell them locally at less than half the price,” he said.
Su Kahumbu, the founder of Green Dreams, a Kenyan organic farming company, said a majority of farmers avoid potential complications by selling their produce locally.
“The local market is the closest one for fresh produce farmers and has fewer risks,” she explained.