Passion for wealth
The North Rift Region may be a major ‘breadbasket' of the country, but it is increasingly emerging as an important passion fruit growing zone for East Africa.
Thousands of farmers are now finding passion fruit farming a good supplement, if not a substitute for maize. Farmers can earn a good living even with small parcels of land, according to Steve Otieno, the senior business adviser for Nurture Project.
Nurture is part of Technoserve, an organization that has received Ksh98 million ($11.5 million) from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Coca Cola to promote passion fruit farming in Kenya.
"Passion fruit farming is a great alternative for farmers who have small pieces of land. We encourage those with bigger pieces of land to do both maize farming and passion fruit farming," says Otieno.
John Mahugu, an agriculture specialist at Greenworld Nurseries, a project of Ampath concurs. "You can do it from even an eighth of an acre," he said.
However, even large-scale farmers have embraced passion fruit farming, with some dedicating as much as 100 acres to the relatively new cash crop, whose demand outstrips supply. The fruit is harvested throughout the year. "Once they are mature, a farmer can harvest every two weeks," explains Otieno.
Ampath is working with farmers in the Rift Valley especially Keiyo, Uasin Gishu, Nandi, Kericho and Belgut areas.
In Western Province farmers in Bungoma and Trans Nzoia too have embraced the passion. Here, Fintrac, through the Kenya Horticulture Competitiveness Project (KHCP), a USAID-funded programme, is working with farmers not just from Rift Valley and Western Provinces, but also in Nyanza.
According to Geoffrey Nyamota, the field manager with Fintrac, farmers in Siaya, Homabay and Kisii are involved in passion fruit farming. "We are working with farmers in Nyanza province. The hotter climates are more suitable for the sweeter, yellow passion fruits," Nyamota says.
Greenworld Nurseries began with funding to the tune of Ksh 800,000. Now the project has become self-sustaining due to the sale of passion fruit seedlings.
Most of the passion fruit grown in the region goes to Uganda where the demand is overwhelming, explains Otieno. "Ugandans love passion fruit juice, so that is where 70-80 per cent of our fruit goes. Most of it is processed at the cottage level using blenders," he adds.
Ugandan traders also process and export the pulp outside Uganda, according to Mahugu.
On the other hand Nyamota explains that this belief is inspired by the fact that passion fruit juice consumption increases one's appetite.
"At peak times, Uganda takes 200 tonnes of passion fruit a week," he says. Traders in Eldoret meet at Kaptuli Market, along the Eldoret - Iten road to collect and blend passion fruit before transporting it to Uganda. Some fruit goes to processors and exporters, as well as supermarkets like Uchumi. Technoserve has so far mobilised 20,000 farmers, 70 per cent of whom are women.
"We are deliberately trying to involve more women and youth in our programmes," says Otieno.
Fintrack works with 15,000 farmers in Rift Valley, Western and Nyanza. It has so far spent about Ksh85 million ($1 million) in supporting passion fruit farming.
"The results will be worth it," Nyamota says.
Technoserve trains farmers, maintains demonstration plots, conducts field visits, provides linkages to other organizations, and consultancy services to farmers.
There is a need to improve quality, according to Otieno. "Kenyan passion fruit is competitive, but it is not yet satisfactory. Some farmers harvest premature fruit, and premature fruits are just not as good," he says.
Quality control is one way of protecting the markets. "We have to protect the Ugandan market jealously. At the moment, Ugandan passion fruit farming is lagging behind in technology, but we cannot afford to be lax," warns Otieno.
There is a challenge of financing, since not all farmers are able to find enough money to start up passion fruit farming projects. "We are trying to work with financial organizations and we are making headway. So far Equity Bank and Faulu are interested," says Otieno. He says that they are also working with self-help groups like Joyful Women Organisation (JOYWO) in Eldoret North constituency and Belgut Empowerment Women Organisation (BEWO) who finance their own members.
According to Mahugu, farmers spend almost Ksh50,000 ($588) per acre to start off passion fruit farming. The plants have to be maintained for about nine months before harvesting can begin. The fruit can be harvested for about four and a half years before a new cycle.
Passion fruit farming is very capital intensive, according to Mahugu. "We help farmers to start from African leafy vegetables and then they can slowly graduate into passion fruit growing," he says. The farmers need seedlings, technical support on the agronomics of growing the plant and links to markets where possible.
Many farmers lack clean planting materials. ‘Clean' planting material is free of insects, soil, and viral or fungal infection. "We are monitoring nurseries to ensure that the planting material is up to standard," explains Otieno. Greenworld Nurseries operates a nursery and supplies seedlings to farmers. The seedlings are grafted to improve resistance to disease.
Diseases are a challenge for many farmers. "The two main challenges are Woodiness and Fusarium Wilt," says Otieno. The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) is conducting research to address the issue. In the meantime, however, farmers are advised to use grafted seedlings, which are more disease resistant. "We grow purple passion fruit, but grafted with a yellow root stalk, which is resistant," explains Otieno.
Technoserve has 10 demonstration lots in 10 districts - five in Nandi, three in Uasin Gishu and two in Keiyo. "These are centres of excellence for farmers," he adds.
"Fusarium is a nuisance because of using glyphosate herbicide, which suppresses the natural enemies of Fusarium, allowing it to flourish," explains Mahugu. "Grafting helps because the root stalk we use is resistant to Fusarium. Woodiness is viral and spreads through sap sucking insects," he says.
Local consumption of passion fruit has not been promoted adequately. "At the moment, only banana and pineapple fruit are doing well, but passion fruit is expensive. If we produce a greater quantity, we can offer more competitive prices to promote local consumption," says Otieno.Unpredictable weather patterns are a major problem. For example, Eldoret has not received enough rain, a situation which has proved costly for farmers and nurseries. Peninah Kamau, a passion fruit farmer in Eldoret says her harvest is small. "I am not harvesting what I should be getting because there is less rain," she says. Mahugu says that the rains have affected sales of passion fruit seedlings. "This year we have enjoyed only three weeks of good rainfall; this means that only 60 farmers have come to buy seedlings. Our research has shown that if there is rain, we can sell 1.2 million passion fruit seedlings annually," explains Mahugu. Last year, the group sold seedlings to 829 farmers.
The current dry spell has forced many farmers to either make do with the smaller harvest or try irrigation. "We are training farmers to understand that rain water - indeed any water that runs - can be harvested and used later," says Nyamota.
Fintrac is now training farmers to construct simple water pans which can collect rainwater. The water is then fed to the plants using button drippers, which are very economical.
"This is a very economical form of irrigation because the drops of water fall directly at the plant. No water is wasted," Nyamota explains. All what the farmers need is a raised tank, filter, main pipe, and lateral connections which take water along the plants. This of course requires money. It costs Ksh70,000 ($824) to set up such a system on one acre of passion fruit.Many farmers do not analyse their soils for pathogens and nutrients. "We encourage farmers to submit samples of their soils for analysis. This will help us assess whether the farm requires treatment for pathogens and to improve the quality of soils. We also need to assess whether the land is suitable for irrigation which can help maintain production during dry spells," says Mahugu.
Since passion fruit is a relatively new crop, farmers don't know much about it. "We have to train them on the best agronomic practices," he observes.
The other challenge is that markets are seasonal. "Exporters do not buy much passion fruit between December and March because then it is very cold in the West and that brings demand for passion juice down," explains Nyamota. Further, the Ugandan market does not consume much passion fruit between October and January because their own passion fruit is in season then. In order to meet this challenge, producers have to increase local consumption of passion fruit.
Joseph Kosgey, a farmer in Kapseret, Eldoret South started passion fruit farming in 2009. "I had undergone training at Ampath and other organisations before I decided to venture into passion fruit farming," he says.
So far, Kosgey has spent Ksh200,000 ($2, 353) on the crop. He has made some money but not enough since he has encountered challenges because of diseases and changing rain patterns.
"I have learnt some lessons. After this I will still continue passion fruit farming but combine it with other crops," says the first time farmer. "I have learnt that it is important to test your soil and then treat it if necessary. I have also learnt that it is important to follow the instructions for proper management of the crop," he says.
On her part, Kamau started passion fruit farming in 2010 and in her own words, it has been good. "We planted with a lot of expectations. The harvest has been good but this year is not as good because it is too dry," she says. Kamau is happy she has recouped her investment and she is ready to harvest for the second time.
"I got information through the radio and television about passion fruit farming and also decided to try for myself," she says. "I was only farming vegetables, and tomatoes but my work with passion fruit is also limited because I am renting a small farm. If I had my own farm I would do more." Her overall verdict is that the farming has been good. "At least now I know I will not go begging or bothering anyone for money to pay school fees," she says.
BY JOYCE SAMBU