Sim-sim, the wonder oil crop with the resilience of a camel that is lighting up faces in the arid north
The sun baked soils of Mandera and neighbouring Counties in North Eastern Kenya where rainfall is but a rarity support the growing of sim sim, a wonder oil seed crop that thrives on little water and is a proved vanguard for good health.
In Mandera County where most of the crop is grown, the husbandry is courtesy of irrigation from River Daua that originates in Ethiopia and flows nine months in a year to join the River Juba in neighbouring Somalia.
The tiny seeds that measure only three to four millimeters long and two millimetres wide are top heavy with natural oils, antioxidants, proteins, dietary fibres, vitamins and useful minerals such as calcium, potassium, zinc iron, phosphorus and magnesium according to health experts, giving them a wonder status of sorts in the prevention of chronic diseases.
Hence, Sim sim also known as sesame is in high demand due to ingredients that play a crucial role in curtailing cancer, diabetes, blood pressure and other dreaded lifestyle and genetic ailments. The spiraling demand has struck pastoralist communities in arid and semi-arid areas like a pleasant thunderbolt, its impact a smoldering realization that the crop is a quintessential and reliable income earner.
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Hassan Abdi Mohamed is one such pastoralist. He has been growing the crop by irrigation along the River for three years now with, in his words, “nothing to regret about”.
“I used to strain a lot taking care of my two wives and 15 children even with the few goats, camels and cattle in my hands. I tried maize farming but the yields were erratic and the market fickle. With sim sim, I often smile all the way to and from the bank the bank,” he effervesces, the glow on his face shining over his well-kept white and red goatee.
Mohamed has dedicated some two and a half acres to the crop that he says gives him no less than eight 90 kilogram bags after harvest every three months.
“It is an easy going crop that requires no farm inputs as it is not attacked by pests, resists fungal and other infections and is never stressed by shortage of water. Like our best friend, the camel, sim sim tolerates drought,” enthuses Mohamed, a devout Muslim with a white turban that has seen better days tightly tied to his scalp.
His youthful neighbor Hussein Maoo has two acres under young sim sim plants less than a month old. “I have stopped growing other crops since I discovered the convenience that comes with growing sim sim,” says Maoo, a father of three and husband to two wives with the looks of one freshly out of high school.
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Maoo says he has discarded all other crops since he discovered sim sim. “I used to plant cow peas alongside maize. Not anymore,” he says.
The Agricultural Extension Officer in charge of Aresa Irrigation Scheme located about 40 kilometers north of Mandera Town says over 20 farmers have taken to sim sim farming at the 300 acre scheme of which 160 acres is currently utilized. He says the County Government takes the bulk of the harvest from farmers for its oil processing factory in Mandera town.
“The farmers are paid for the oil squeezed from their harvest at the rate of sh400 per litre. A 50 kilogram bag yields as much as 25 litres of cooking oil,” says Mr Elmi.
He explains that nothing goes to waste as sim sim stems that are either uprooted or cut, plus the husks are nutritious feeds for livestock. “The farmer is at liberty to retrieve processing waste or ‘cake’ to feed livestock,” says Elmi.
On planting methods, Elmi says the seeds can either be broadcast or sowed in rows, ideally 10 centimetres apart. Intercropping is not advisable because the crop is sensitive to competition for nutrients and needs ample sunlight to thrive.
He says the crop is ready for harvesting when the stem turns yellow and the leaves start falling off.
Mandera County Director of Agriculture Mr Bernard Ogutu says sim sim farming is picking up well. “Most of the oil squeezed from the seeds is sold in Nairobi and neighbouring Ethiopia,” says Mr Ogutu.