Peter Ng’ang’a picks an avocado seedling from a cluster of 100 on his farm in Ng’araria village in Murang’a County and looks at it carefully.
“This one has been affected by the heavy rains,” he says, as he puts it down and checks three more. He concludes that the batch has been hit by root rot, before moving to check another group of seedlings.
As the weather becomes erratic, Ng’ang’a has to battle several diseases and pests that threaten his agribusiness.
But this has not dampened his spirit as the farmer works hard to satisfy a fast-growing seedlings market for the fruit, whose prospects have brightened after Kenya in April 2019 secured a new market in China.
Kenya also sells the fruits in Europe and the Americas, with the country being the second top exporter in Africa after South Africa.
“I mainly grow the Hass avocado seedlings because that is what the market wants,” he says.
He has been in the business for over two decades following training at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) horticulture institute in Kandara, where he also worked in the breeding section before he quit to grow seedlings.
But for all that period, things have never looked as bright for the business as they appear now.
“Avocados are now the leading crop of interest in the country because of the new market. Many people want to grow the fruit. We must now work hard to satisfy the seedlings market,” he says.
The urgency to reap from the fruit can be seen as one traverses Murang’a – the home of avocados. Farmers have not only spruced up their older trees, which they never cared much about in the past, but are also planting new ones.
His seedling propagation starts with buying indigenous seeds from open-air markets in Murang’a and Nairobi, explains Ng’ang’a, 52.
Each seed goes for Sh1. “I talk with traders at the markets to keep for me the seeds. From these seeds we grow the rootstock.”
The indigenous seeds are important in the growth of quality seedlings because they are hardy, are adopted to the local environment and are resistant to diseases.
“Once I get the seeds, I grow them in nylon pots where I first put loam soil mixed with goat or cow manure. The indigenous seeds are bigger than the Hass variety seeds.”
The plant is ready for grafting after about a month and a half, says Isaac Kimali, whose work is to graft the seedlings on Ng’ang’as farm, named Work Done, that employs other five people. To graft the seedlings, he gets the Hass avocado scions from two mature trees on the farm.
“Grafting requires great care and precision. I normally start with the rootstock where I chop off the top part of the plant using a grafting blade, then make a V-shaped incision on the stem.”
He, thereafter, takes the Hass scion, which should not be picked from a flowering plant, and chops the sides to ensure it fits perfectly inside the rootstock.
“I then tie the two tightly using a polythene sheet so that water does not get into the joint in case it rains.”
Kimali grafts up to 1,000 seedlings in a day, taking less than a minute to work on each plant. The plants are ready for transplanting after at least a year and mature in three to four years.
“We sell the seedlings to individual farmers from western, eastern, Coast and Rift Valley regions, county governments, schools, roadside seedling traders and non-governmental organisations promoting avocado farming in different parts of the country,” says Ng’ang’a, who adds that he has grafted millions of seedlings since he started.
Each avocado seedling goes for Sh150 shilling. One of his best moments is when he partnered with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to supply 10,000 avocado seedlings to farmers. He has also sold seedlings to farmers in Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan.
His son helps him market the seedlings especially on social media and at farmers’ events where they also offer training.
“My goal is to turn this farm into a model seedlings centre where farmers can buy quality seedlings and come for lessons on grafting and seed propagation,” says Ng’ang’a, who runs another seedlings farm in Marurui on the outskirts of Nairobi, where he started before moving to Murang’a for a bigger space.
Besides avocados, he also propagates orange, mango, lemon, nectarine, kiwi, peach, apricots, pixies, grapes, macadamia, passion fruit, apple and coffee (Ruiru II) seedlings, which go for between Sh50 and Sh350, depending on the plant.
“We handle grapes in a makeshift greenhouse since they are delicate and mature faster,” he says, noting diseases are one of the biggest challenges in the seedlings business.
At the peak of its production, a Hass avocado tree gives 1,000 fruits per season. However, upon maturity, one harvests 500 fruits, with the number increasing with time with good management that includes pruning and applying manure and fertiliser around the tree, says Ng’ang’a.
But even as avocado holds great promise for many farmers and the country, Dr George Njenga, the Executive Dean of Strathmore University Business School, warns that Kenya won’t reap its full potential from the boom because its stake in the global value chain is very small.
“We may be among the largest producers, but unless we add value to them, our real stake in the world will remain negligible,” said Dr Njenga. He said only three firms in the country have the ‘global status’ certification to export avocado.
He was speaking at a media breakfast meeting organised by Strathmore University Business School this week.
Additional reporting by Julius Sigei
Cost-benefit analysis of Hass avocado
- 1st and 2nd years – growth
- 3rd year – 200-250 fruits per tree – Sh240,000
- 5th year – 800 fruits per tree – Sh900,000
- 10th year – more than 1,750 fruits per tree – Sh2 million.
The above analysis is based on spacing of 5m by 5m to give a total of 150 plants per acre and the selling price is Sh8 per fruit.