A field visit to witness one of the milestone achievements of KHCP projects takes us to the lush terrain of Nandi County, Aldai Constituency, Maraba ward and Kisarich village where we meet Cleophas Keter, a passion fruit farmer, who briskly coins his passion fruit farming as a lifelong success since 2012.
While battling a lifelong land ownership stigma bestowed on young men and women by Nandi's; Cleophas has managed to beat all odds and emerge a victor. "In Nandi culture, old men are the only ones allowed to own and cultivate land. This has changed over the years as the youthful generation and women have been actively involved in agricultural projects like this of KHCP in our region", he said.
Kenya Horticulture Competitiveness Project (KHCP) is a USAID five year project that seeks to empower thousands of farmers linking them into new markets making such projects more profitable while taping into the youth and women. KHCP is a project funded by USAID as part of feed the future program, the US governments' global hunger and food security initiative.
What initially started as a conceived idea by Equatorial Hortifresh Ltd, has taken Nandi County by storm. In its wake came the paradigm shift from the usual cash crops tea and coffee to what can be termed as millionaires galore attributed to the quick cash it earns its farmers. "Initially, we were planting tea but the consistent price fluctuations and consequently very high production cost could only fetch very low revenue. Passion fruit gives me weekly earnings of Kshs. 36,000.00 per week as compared to Kshs. 4,000.00 which I used to get from beans seasonally", Cleophas interjects.
Equatorial Hortifresh Ltd is a small and medium agro enterprise addressing passion fruit production and post-harvest handling constraints through field extension services that its experienced staffs offer to the vast scattered farmers in the whole of Nandi County. This company provides certified seeds to farmers who are organized in groups with an extension officer assigned to each group. Organizing these farmers into groups is geared towards capacity building. Cleophas, a passion fruit farmer emphasizes that this company has been their epitome of solace in accessing viable seedlings which guarantee a bumper harvest.
"As one of the pioneers of passion fruit growing in our county with just an acre, most people saw me as a loser and thus deemed to fail. But in early 2012 when Equatorial Hortifresh Ltd through its agronomist's steered me to my first bumper weekly harvest of 600kgs that translated to Kshs. 42,000, everyone jumped to the idea without second thought. This served as the dawn of millionaires in our county thanks to passion fruit farming", he adds.
Passion fruit is first grown as seeds in nurseries which take close to a month. The seedlings are later put in tubes for a period of 3 months. They are later grafted a process which involves using rootstock of sweet yellow passion variety and the scion being the purple passion variety. "The yellow passion variety is pest and disease resistant as compared to the purple one that's why we use it as the rootstock. Grafted plants can stay up to 5 years in comparison to un-grafted ones and plus it is possible to get high yielding variety when you combine two varieties", Cleophas reiterates.
Grafting takes utmost 3 months which is later followed by 3 weeks of healing and later on 2 weeks of hardening the seedlings. They are later transplanted to the designated planting area. "An altitude of between 1200 – 1800 meters above sea level and prime land with minimum tillage is ideal as this gives the plants ample root growth space and nutrient uptake. Sandy-loam soils are preferred because they have proper drainage. The pH of the soil should be 5.5 – 6.5 as passion fruit prefers slightly acidic soils", elucidates Mr. Emmanuel Tarbei, the Agronomist in charge of Nandi County.
Cleophas explains that early training helps to establish a framework of leaders from which laterals will grow and bear fruit. Therefore once planting your vine, pinch off any side shoots then train the leader until it reaches the trellis or support. Then pinch out the growing tip to force the production of laterals. These are then trained along the support. Continuous top dressing using CAN and NPK is necessary. Grafting eliminates most of the diseases and thus there are very low cases reported.
Within a span of 5 months, the fruits are ready for harvesting. The fruits are ready when they are almost 90% purple. Harvesting involves handpicking the fruits and putting them in crates. Equatorial Hortifresh has an organized collection and transportation channel which ensures that fruits don't go bad in the farms and also deterioration of quality through delays. "Nandi County produces a whooping 7000kgs of passion, 3000kgs being export quality every month that translates to close to Kshs.560,000 going directly to the farmers through an organized payment system offered by Equity Bank. This ensures sustainability and elimination of middlemen unlike in other cash crops", Tarbei said.
"Our lives have changed since embarking onto this project. I'm able earn thrice as much as I earned every month in my 29 years of service as primary school teacher. I've been able to take my nine children to the best schools in the country thanks to this passion fruit project", confidently utters Mr. Gideon Bett, a passion fruit farmer in the region. With just a half an acre (390 plants), Gideon is able to sell an average of 300 kilos per week that fetch close to Kshs. 24,000 per week.
Cleophas and Bett are some of the isolated success stories hailing from Nandi County thanks to passion fruit farming. It is with this in mind that the Nandi County government is encouraging all its residents to venture into income generating agricultural practices that would foster prosperity and eventually attaining county development goals.