Moiben Sub–County in Uasin Gishu is a renowned maize and wheat farming belt, but Alice Rono avoided the region’s traditional crops for passion fruit. She has now been farming the crop for the last 20 years.
Ms Rono, a mother of three, started growing the fruits in 1997, on a small piece land as experiment.
However, when she realised the crop was performing well and that it was in high demanded, she decided to commercialise it on a two -acre piece of land.
A few days ago, we visited Ms Rono’s farm in Ziwa where the fruits have been planted several rows, short strong poles supporting them from the ground while their sprawling vines are looped around some wires to keep their fruits off the ground.
“I grow both purple and sweet yellow passion fruit varieties,” the farmer pointed out, adding that the crop takes about six to eight months to mature.
Ms Rono who owns six-acre farm explains that she sub-divided the farm into three portions, growing passion fruits on two acres, coffee on one acre while reserving the rest for traditional vegetables.
She harvests 1, 500 kilos of the fruits weekly.
She grows the traditional passion fruit seedlings saying they have a high profit margin compared to the grafted ones.
Non-grafted seedlings, the farmer says, have a longer lifespan on the farm and can produce up to three years before they can be replaced unlike the grafted ones whose productivity wanes within two years.
“Then non-grafted seedlings are also resistant to drought and diseases,” the farmer observed.
The fruits are planted two metres apart in rows that are three metres apart while the trellis wires which support the tendrils should be number nine or 10 of galvanised steel to avoid rusting. Once the fruit is planted, the vines grow rapidly and the crop begins flowering after about six months.
“The flowering stage requires a lot of water, failure to which you may end up with poor fruits that don’t meet the market standards,” the farmer explained, adding that she owes her quality fruits to irrigation.
Also, if the crop fails to get enough water then it means that it can easily contract diseases, she observed.
Initially, the farmer had sank a well at her farm to provide water for the fruits, but the well dried earlier this year in the wake of severe drought.
“My biggest challenge now is water. I use about 20,000 litres of water per week which costs around Sh15,000. I would wish to do drip irrigation moving forward because with this I will not incur such high costs,” said Ms Rono.
When ready for harvesting, the fruit changes its colour from green to yellow or deep purple. For fresh market or use, the fruit is picked when colour changes occur.
Previously they used to sell a kilo of passion fruits at Sh30 but the price had risen to Sh100.
“Passion fruit is an easy crop to take care of. I sell a kilo of the fruit between Sh80 and Sh100 which is more profitable compared to maize,” she said
She has employed five farmhands who do the daily management of the farm.
The farmer has since introduced her neighbors to the crop and urges other farmers to diversify their farming instead of relying on a single crop throughout.
“I decided to teach my neighbours so that they can also benefit and stop relying to maize alone reflecting the dropping market prices,” explained Ms Rono.
The farmer also petitioned the Uasin Gishu County government to consider setting up a passion fruit processing factory to enable farmers earn from value addition.
“The county government can help us set up a factory to process juice because currently we depend on factories in Uganda,” she said.
The farmer sells the fruits to Equatorial Horti–Fresh limited, a local company which finally exports the produce to Uganda, Europe and other oversea markets. Kenya produces an estimated 55,300 metric tonnes of passion fruits which nets the country about Sh1.9 billion annually.
Fruit and vegetable farming for export is among the top foreign exchange earners for the country, according to government statistics as more farmers go into horticultural farming.
In 2017, production of fruits increased from 48,700 tonnes to 56,945 metric tonnes while the production of vegetables rose from 78,800 tonnes to 87,240 metric tonnes. That year, the exports values of fruits and vegetables also increased by 23.3 per cent and three percent respectively according to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics released in 2018.
KNBS estimates also reported that Kenya earned Sh9 billion in foreign exchange from export volumes of 56,945 metric tonnes of fruits, and Sh24 billion from export of 87,240 tonnes of vegetables.
However, in 2018, fruits and vegetables earned the country Sh12.83 billion and Sh27.69 billion respectively.
Moses Korir Keitany,CEO Equatorial Horti-Fresh, advices passion fruit farmers to use modern irrigation systems since regular watering of the crops is crucial in ensuring a high quality harvest.
“Farmers should also ensure good soil fertility by incorporating large amounts of compost, mulching and monitoring potassium and calcium levels in the soil,” explained Keitany while advising farmers to pick only ripe fruits which are not scorched because they will stay fresh for long time.
He urged farmers to work in cooperatives so that they can benefit from bulk buying services.
He however raised the red flag over the use of wrong pesticides on the crop. The expert asked the Ministry of Agriculture to monitor the use of chemicals on the crop so that buyers do not lose their lucrative markets over products with high residue levels.
Export markets such as the Europe Union require that pesticides used by farmers must be registered and approved. So far there is only one herbicide and one pesticide approved by Pesticide Control Board (PCB) for use by growers of the fruits.
As a result a farmer who uses a pesticide that is not among those approved, risk losing the market.
Keitany said packaging and warehouses for the fruits are stored should be of high quality.
Carol Mutua, a horticultural expert at the Department of Crops, Horticulture and Soils at Egerton University, advices that fruit ddiseases can also be controlled by combination of good management, good orchard hygiene, and a suitable spray programme.
“Pests lower fruit quality and should be controlled by regularly checking the areas around the orchard for signs of pest build up,” said Ms Mutua.