By Wilson Maina/October 2010
Despite its high potential to alleviate poverty, earn substantial foreign exchange and suitability to grow in nearly every corner of Kenya on small parcels of land, the strawberry remains largely unexploited as the country spends millions of shillings importing the fruit whose flavor resonates with many tongues.
It is a favorite in jams, yoghurts, juices, cookies and milkshakes among other products and unconfirmed reports indicate that a prominent personality is growing them for export while manufacturers are importing the berries from Europe.
Other reports indicate that the government has directed companies which produce/manufacture strawberry products using flavors to use natural fruits, that are rich in calcium, vitamin e; calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and fiber. The companies have started importing the plants and fruits since the local growers cannot satisfy the demand.
This also means there is a ready market for the fruits, which Mr. Mureithi said can be commercially produced on a small parcel of land.
“Strawberry farming has a high potential to employ very many of our jobless youth,” says Joseph Mureithi, the Principal of Waruhiu Farmers Training Centre. According to Robert Gitau, Rogita Plants Consultants managing director, strawberry farming may be easy but it demands dedication as it requires regular watering, fruits continuously and is harvested weekly.
There are 42 varieties of strawberries, three for export and the rest for the local market. Chandler, Pajero and Sulphur fall in the hybrid category and are grown for export. Local varieties have a red stem and a thick fur not found with the export ones.
Strawberries are grown from splits, and are suitable for temperatures of between 10 degrees C and 30 degrees C therefore they can grow in every part of the country. To produce strawberries, one has to prepare the land well. Make/uplift the beds to one metre width making a path of 50cm the beds for easier spray watering. One has to pre bed well by leveling it with.
Mix the topsoil with manure at 20kg buckets per square metre the bed well with watering cans/drips. From the edge of the bed one has to leave a space of 15cm to make a small hole for the plants, 30cm from plant to plant and 30cm from line to line in an isolated triangle to give the plants enough space to flower on all sides. Before planting one has to apply the planting chemical Molcap, Nembidicene 2gms per hole and mix with the soil then plant the split firmly and level the ground properly. After planting, water every evening.
In the first month, deflower the first and second flowers to prevent premature cropping and top dress with CAN at one table spoon/10gms per hole between the plants. This helps the plants to take only what it requires. At the second month the plants produce healthy flowers. Top dress with NPK: 17:17 between the plants. Mulching is done at this stage whereby dry grass or hay is used, to help the ground/soil to retain water and for the fruits to lie on, to keep them clean and healthy.
After 75 days (two-and-a- months), harvesting starts and the plant fruits for three years continuously. Throughout this production period, plants should be well fed to maintain high quality yields. This is by feeding for example with foliar feeds HB1O1. For healthy fruits, keep the bed clean and free of weeds. Like many plants, pruning is vital for the strawberry. It is done after every two months to remove the old and unhealthy leaves.
During the rainy season, the strawberry is attacked by fungal diseases which target the leaves leaving brown spots. It is advisable to spray with a fungicide like COTAF, Master to fight the diseases. Ants are also a big threat to strawberries and it is advisable to spray with a pesticide like ATOM, Tata Umeme, or Vapcomic. After every seven months, thinning is done to remove three splits from every plant making them self- reliable.
To grow strawberries for export, it is advisable to choose high quality hybrids like the chandler. Fruits for export should be harvested when they are 1/4 ripe to avoid over-ripening when they are on the market. After harvesting the fruits stay fresh for 4-5 days.
Strawberry can be used to make jam and yoghurt or lotions and can be taken as a fruit.
Mr. Gitau said capital, water and seeds are the main basics that have often put off investors. The seed is especially costly with one split going for Ksh300. A commercial farmer requires at least 1,000 splits, therefore not many people can afford them.