Dressed in a black T-shirt, matching trouser and gumboots, George Gachie bends in his strawberry greenhouse in Nyeri and picks a red fruit.
He opens it and blurts out, “This will be ready for harvesting in about a week’s time.” He then continues to check how the other fruits are doing.
Gachie ventured into strawberry farming two years ago, starting with one greenhouse in which he invested Sh500,000.
Today, the agribusiness has expanded to six greenhouses on two acres, with over 7,500 plants. He has named the farm Helena, and is situated some 100 metres from the Nairobi-Nyeri highway at Kangocho in Kirinyaga County.
The 43-year-old banker, who works in the US, says he fell in love with the crop during a tour of a farm in the country in 2017.
“We visited a farm and for the first time in my life, I saw a lush green crop sitting on a huge piece of land with very huge red fruits. This planted the seed of strawberry farming in me,” he offers.
When he travelled back home, he consulted an agronomist and put up his first greenhouse, with the expert helping him in doing a soil test and sourcing for planting materials.
Gachie grows the pine variety of the berries using animal manure, in particular one from goats, with the farmer noting it has more nutrients.
“Goat manure is readily available as most locals keep the animals,” says Gachie, who warns against growing the crops without doing soil analysis to know missing nutrients and presence of diseases.
After mixing the soil with manure and some inorganic fertiliser that he applies in small quantities, with the help of his workers he sets up the drip irrigation pipes.
The beds are then covered with a mulching paper before planting. He thereafter makes holes on the mulching paper and plants.
When he started farming, he was using a permeable mulching paper that allows penetration of water, which he ferried from the US.
But the paper is not available locally making him switch to nylon which wears out easily, says the farmer who has employed a farm manager who look after the farm while he is away.
“Mulching helps conserve water and reduce labour costs that would have been incurred on weeding. I am not struggling with weeds in any of my greenhouses.”
According to him, the ideal spacing for planting strawberries should be 30cm between the rows and 30cm within the rows.
“Proper spacing encourages adequate space utilisation and makes sure that the beds are not crowded leading to competition of nutrients.”
With strawberry, one plants splits, ensuring that the roots are covered but the crown left exposed on the soil surface.
“The cost of setting up a new crop reduced ever since I grew the plant in the first greenhouse. I do not have to buy splits. I harvest them from the other greenhouses and plant.”
On the upper part of his greenhouses, the farmer has put a chicken mesh to allow for smooth entry of bees for pollination.
He harvests the crop at least twice a week, getting 50kg per session that he sells to grocery stores in Parklands and Westlands and in markets in the central business district in Nairobi.
He packages the strawberries in 250g punnets and delivers to his clients, with the pack going at an average of Sh200. He has a fridge where he stores excess harvest as he works on building a cold room.
“The secret to good earnings is eliminating the middleman and selling your produce directly to the buyer. The brokers out here do not care about the farmer and will buy a kilo of the fruits at a throw away price,” says the farmer, who adds he still faces the challenge of getting very good price for his produce.
He is yet to break even partly due to high costs of setting up the greenhouses but he says the project is currently running itself.
The ready market for the fruit, he says, is underexploited as few farmers are reaping the benefits of growing strawberries.
Gachie boasts of being one of the few farmers growing the pine variety, which is as a result of crossbreeding pineapple and strawberries.
He has also planted 400 tree tomatoes on the farm as he seeks to double his profit. He anticipates that the grafted trees will start yielding fruits in a few months.
“The importance of an agronomist for any farmer is often taken too lightly, but you will run into losses if you do not consult a professional,” he warns.
According to Dr Joe Wolukau of Egerton University, strawberries are normally propagated from splits or runner plants, which are rooted. The splits or runners should be selected from vigorous, high-yielding and disease-free plants.
Irrigation is critical immediately after planting for crop survival. The plants are shallow-rooted, thus, they require 2.5cm of water per week for 12 weeks per growing season.