Bernard Njaramba, 43, took a leap of faith and quit a lucrative job in the telecommunication sector to set up an exotic Dorper sheep breeding enterprise.
When the Business Daily visited him at his Amagoh Dorpers stud in the semi-arid part of Kantafu in Machakos, the scorching sun had hit the ground dry, signalling lack of rains for months. At a far distance, dozens of sheep bleated as they searched for pasture.
At the farm, he has built a high roof permanent structure fitted with CCTV cameras, and sunk boreholes powered by solar. His sheep business would make entrepreneurs spot an opportunity, if only they can swim against riptides.
Fourteen years ago, Mr Njaramba left employment as chief executive officer at Telesis Tanzania after 17 years in telecoms. The communication graduate came back to Kenya to a 40-acre piece of land he had bought earlier, driven by the passion of sheep rearing to the chagrin of his family members and his peers.
First, he began with indigenous sheep and goats but realised they were taking too long to mature and could not fetch good money.
“I couldn’t get more than Sh3,000 from an indigenous sheep and goat. With zeal to succeed, I decided to buy two Dorper breeding lambs from a farm in Nakuru for Sh25,000 each, ready to cross-breed my flock,” recalls Mr Njaramba.
Cross-breeding Dorper breeds with the indigenous sheep between 2009 and 2010 came as his enterprise springboard. His flock was upgrading and decided to invest in Dorper breed research for better yields.
To him, most farmers in Kenya relied on veterinarians for advice but he realised that farm managers had the much-needed knowledge.
“My research took me to several local Dorper sheep farms before going to South Africa for the best Dorper genetics sought by world best breeders. I was looking for the best sheep that guarantee higher yields,” says Mr Njaramba.
In 2011, he imported seven pregnant ewes and three breeding lambs that have since multiplied to a flock of 450 breeding ewes with a feed-lot that can stock up to 800 sheep per season. He has hired three shepherds to take care of the flock.
He says the Dorper sheep attains the required weight fast, has good mothering traits and is drought-resistant.
Dorper sheep have a very good feed conversion efficiency and are not selective grazers hence will flourish even on relatively poor-quality feeds. An eight-month lamb weighs between 45 to 50 kilogrammes. A mature ewe can weigh between 100 to 115 kilogrammes.
However, imported sheep face unique challenges including adaptability to new climates and diseases and pests not common in their original country.
First, the stud, now a registered member of the Dorper Sheep Breeders Society of Kenya, began breeding for meat, supplying to major local traders and exporters for several years before identifying an opportunity in breeding Dorpers for new and experienced farmers in East Africa.
“Dorper meat demand is higher than supply. It’s a volume-based market. The fat cover is well spread, and the meat is tender compared with indigenous Dorper reared by pastoralists,” he says.
He sells a pure South African four months weaner ram for Sh70,000, while a four-month-old weaner ram sired by a South African breeding ram goes for Sh20,000. A four-month-old weaner ewe goes for Sh18,000 and fat rams for mutton sell at Sh15,000.
The farm keeps each new flock of sheep for only two years to avoid in-breeding and reproduction during extremely dry periods.
“We import a new breed after two years to avoid in-breeding. The current breeding rams are sons of “redbull”. The pedigree of a breed is one facet to high yields of a sheep,” says Mr Njaramba.
Besides breeding, he also offers training to farm owners and their employees. Trainees are usually housed within the farm for three days of rigorous training.
The flock is reared in paddocks in an open range, but sometimes they are fed on hay grown at the farm. Currently, the farm has a stock of more than 300 bales of hay.
The biggest challenge has been copper poisoning common with goats and sheep locally, prompting the farm to formulate its own salt.
Also, sheep are prone to worm. He recommends drenching of ewes and rams to clear any internal parasites before breeding.
To mitigate losses, Mr Njaramba is among the few farmers who have insured his sheep against theft and death, considering the heavy investment he has put in each sheep. Mr Njaramba advises farmers to always insure their flock to avoid losses in case of any eventuality.
Just like most farmers, the pandemic has taken a toll on the farm, reducing sales significantly. Movement restrictions also halted farmers’ training and the cost of rearing animals shot up because the farm had to keep the animals beyond the stipulated time.
He is hopeful as the market gradually opens, he will transform sheep farming in East Africa and contribute to regional food security.
“I want to demystify the notion that animal rearing is a backup plan for employed people or an activity for unlearned people back in the villages.
Farming ought to be embraced as a career. If I hadn’t utilised my land for Dorper sheep breeding it would have either gone to waste or used as a recreational centre,” he says.