By MURIMI GITARI and ANTHONY MUTAI
With three commercial farms, thousands of contracted farmers and a new state of the art pack house in the offing, Keitt Exporters is set to mark its 20th anniversary in the fresh produce business as the home of avocado farming in East Africa.
While pundits think the current wave of expansion in avocado production in Kenya is likely to dumpen the fortunes of growers as large volumes are offloaded into the market, Keitt is looking for more farmers to join its club as it gears to increase exports and feed the factory.
With eyes trained in a better future buoyed by rising demand in the local and export markets, a surge in processing avocado oil as well as other byproducts, Keitt is establishing a modern packhouse, processing centre and a factory at Kenol, Thika, Muranga County to centralise consolidation of the fruit and related operations which will be ready for the next avocado season early 2020.
For the 19 years the firm has produced and exported vegetables and fruits it is fairly familiar with consumer dynamics and industry trends to inform the next phase of development. The portfolio includes mangoes, passion fruits and premium vegetables like sugar snaps, baby corn, chillis, snow pea, French beans, with avocado being a top product. The name Keitt was derived from the mangoes business which was a flagship variety for over two decades ago. The name was suggested by the Managing Director, Asif Amin, and the Production and Technical Director Isaac Mwangi. “Avocado is our flagship business now and for the future’, said Dipesh Devraj, Commercial and Operations Director of Keitt that is handling some 600 containers in a season by sea and a similar number by air.
Any sales to China? Not yet. But we are ready to send fresh fruit when the deal is renegotiated given that at the moment Kenya doesn’t have the technology to process chilled avocados. Managing Director Asif Amin says quality and consistency in the supply of high quality, pest-free and disease-free produce is the goal of Keitt Exporters for customer retention, markets expansion and sustained business, the reason the company is continuously training growers and putting in systems to ensure they are certfied by regulators and inspectors.
When the Chinese toured Kenya to access the country’s capacity to supply avocados, Keitt Exporters is among the nurseries, farms and packhouse identified by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service to host the delegation attesting the firm’s leading position in the sector.
Currently the firm has an exclusive market with various partners and customers in Europe where they are selling the Kenya avocados. Other markets are Middle East, Russia, Turkey and Asia.
Keitt’s confidence in the future of the avocado is informed by reports the market is growing globally for the fresh market and processing into oil. Statistics in Europe show consumers have moved from eating 400g per person to 7kgs. Locally, for the past 10 years appetite for the avocado has increased as Kenyans make the fruit part of their daily meals either with breakfast, lunch or dinner. Some consumers report substituting margarine with avocado as breadspread, Kenya’s traditional foods – Githeri and ugali are not considered complete without a slice of avocado! These and other consumer habits have fuelled an unprecedented demand for the fruit, and luckily, some varieties produce year-round therefore avocados are available all through. Increased demand in the fresh market, pharmaceuticals and cosmetic industries provide feasible growth and expansion in production.
With avocado farming being a game changer in the country and many famers switching to avocados, Keitt sources fruit from own production harvested at its three farms in Embu, Meru and Subukia (Nakuru) and tops up with produce from about 4,000 out growers active at any one given season spread across the nine growing regions in the country. The three farms avearge 750 acres with over 50,000 top quality grafted seedlings at one given time. It also offtakes produce from single large commercial farms. Smallscale producers are advised to form groups with a minimum membership of 30 growers who cumulatively can put 50 acreas under the fruit. The nine growing areas of avocados include Muranga, Nakuru, Uasin Gishu, Machakos, Kajiado Embu, Nyeri, Kiambu and Meru counties.
Keitt specializes in growing and exporting hass and fuerte varieties. In their Embu farm they grow hass variety, Meru farm hass and fuerte varieties while in Subukia farm they have only Fuerte. The company is advising farmers to grow fuerte variety as there is a very high competition in the hass market.
“The focus right now with many growers and exporters is on the hass variety that has flooded the market leaving a wide gap on fuerte that will be in demand in some years to come therefore there is need for farmers to start planting fuerte” Said Isaac Mwangi, Production & Technical Director.
Isaac Mwangi, the Production & Technical Director says the uptake of seedlings from their nurseries is an indication of the rapid expansion in production as existing farmers expand and new growers board the train. New farmers who purchase Keitt seedlings are encouraged and supported to join the firm’s growing outgrowers club to benefit from a guaranteed market and technical support. ‘We sell certified seedlings and our agronomists work with the farmers through the journey till harvest, providing regular guidance and support every step of the way to maximise production”, said Mr Mwangi who added this includes harvesting timing. Their nurseries are in Embu, Meru and Subukia, with Embu as the model farm, where they take farmers for training on field days or arranged farm tours. The fruits that they get from these farmers who are their outgrowers do not mature at the same time being an advantage for them as they are able to get avocados at different times for the market. Where many farmers order for seedlings, they deliver at a collection point.
Mr Mwangi notes that many farmers lack guidance in growing avocados, and not getting it right can lead to frustration. Produce rejection resulting from failure to follow laid down procedures and low tree productions are some of the challenges. “To avoid these and other challenges, we partner with our growers to offer the guidance and react to any emerging issues”, he explained, emphasizing on the need to obtain certfied seedlings, conduct a soil analysis to identify the right fertilizer, apply the recommended fertilizer and water the tree. “Avocado requires water to do well, drip or jet sprinklers are good for watering’, he said. Keitt’s farms are all under irrigation while the firm works closely with CropNuts for soil and nutrition health.
Farmers’ day out
During a visit by a group of farmers from Tharaka Nithi County at Keitt Exporters Embu farm, Mr Francis Gichuru, the Avocado Farms and Agronomy Manager, made a presentation on the right way of planting avocados. He advised the attentive growers on the importance of obtaining seedlings from known sources for assurance of type quality and maturity. “Don’t buy seedlings from the roadside because they are cheap. Chances of not knowing what type you are planting are high and so is the possibility of its not thriving into a mature productive plant”, he advised to laughter from his audience who later confessed to have suffered the fate. Seedlings, he added must stay in the nursery for not less than one year to withstand the shock of transplanting and be clean of root pathogens.
Transplant by digging a hole of 2X2 ft. The soil dug out is mixed with manure at a ratio of two wheel barrows of soil to one debe of manure and returned to the hole without compacting the mixture. The seedling is placed in a raised bed to control waterlogging which causes root fungi. Good spacing of 4X6 between rows is recommended due to shallow spreading nature of the avocado feeder roots to create sufficient spacing for feeding and light for the leaves.
He added that avocado trees are maintained by
watering them once or twice in a week provided mulching is done.
“When planting ensure the soil is not compacted and do not provide any kind of nutrients to the seedlings other than manure,” he said. The first fertilizer application should be Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) at a ratio of 3:1:3 applied after four months which should last for up to one year before the next application.
Afterf 18 months, apply Zinc and Boron by way of spraying or applying on the ground to provide sugars to the plant and help in pollen germination respectively. Avocado trees in Kenya flower in August and farmers are advised to feed the plant four months earlier. The young avocado tree is whitewashed to reflect sunlight and prevent damage. It is critical not to dilute the solution too much.
With common fruit fly and False Coddling Moth being the main pests in avocados and major threats, Mr. Gichuru reports there are very simple ways of tackling the predators. Pheromone traps are effective in knowing the ratio of males to females and type of pests in their farms.
One of the farmers, Gitari M’Rachi, noted with concern how they have been growing avocados the wrong way and with the brief training they received, they are now going to do it the right way with expectations of reaping higher yields.
“We have been mistreating the avocado trees and now with this kind of information we now aim to embark on a journey of transforming our orchards ,” Mr. Gitari said amid applause from his peers.
The delegation of farmers showed great interest going by the questions raised. They engaged the technical team at great length and requested Keitt Exporters team to visit their farms to sensitize them and other farmers more on production as they also organize themselves for another tour which will attract more growers from the county, with assurance of signing supplier contracts if they are organized and ready for training in Good Agricultural Practices.
The Keitt team together with the directors of the company hold regular field days and spend the day with farmers – this is an old traditional concept from tobacco farmers in Zimbabwe who meet together and see the good, the bad and also exchange ideas on the fields as they walk the talk – a new concept introduced by Keitt management says Dipesh Devraj the firms Operations & Commercial Director. We also have regular specialist growers from Israel hosted by Keitt to visit our farmer’s fields at the cost of Keitt – this is an imitative we drive so all of us can benefit on increasing our yields.
The County Government official Wilberforce Muriungi said the relevant departments would mobilise the necessary support to ensure Tharaka Nithi can tap the huge potential in avocado for increased farmer incomes.
For seedlings from Keitt exporters please contact ,Francis Gichuru 0721 359 547, or Isaac Mwangi 0722 728 691