By : Bob Koigi
A desperate attempt to uproot coffee trees by Central Kenya farmers due to poor yields and low pay has heralded a new farming venture that has more than tripled their earnings.
For the 25 members of the Mbari ya Mboche Self Help group, delving into the farming of avocado, passion fruits and strawberries has been the best decision they made. Having entered into numerous contracts with private horticultural companies involved in the export business, they are now able to earn up to Sh10 for each avocado they sell, a far cry from the Sh1 that was the farm gate price some five years ago.
Under the guidance of Mr. Gichuki, a retired officer from the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization, KALRO, now turned farmer, the group has benefited from support of researchers at KALRO Thika. The support resulted from a successful proposal submitted by the group to get into passion fruit farming. Advice from KALRO has included information on better farming practices to increase yields, avoid post-harvest losses while helping them to connect to ready markets.
The group has also managed to establish market ties with local processors who use their fruits for pulps and juices. One such processor, Rosavie in Nairobi, buys the fruits from the farmers at Ksh 100 per kilo.
It is however the strawberry leaves that has got everyone talking. The leaves which were traditionally thrown away after harvesting the berries have now become much sought after by decorating and florist firms in Thika and Nairobi with farmers now being overwhelmed by the demand for these leaves. A single branch of the plant goes for Sh 1.50, with farmers tying them in bundles of 100 branches which go for Sh150. In one week the flower and decoration companies request over 30,000 such bundles which explain why the farmers have decided to go into groups to meet this demand. The florists are chasing the strawberry leaves which they use in flower bouquets. The shape and smell of the strawberry leaves have given it an upper hand among florists. As the demand for flowers move from traditional customers like churches, offices and weddings, to homes and individuals, florists are becoming increasingly overwhelmed by demand and are looking for new ways of making the bouquets appealing to customers. This is where the strawberry leaves have come in handy. “We use a variety of leaves to place between flowers, but customers seem hooked to those with the strawberry leaves. It produces a nice smell and weaves perfectly with flowers. The demand is so high that we have been nagging more farmers to embrace the farming of the leaves and we would provide them with a ready market,” said Victor Nderi Operations Manager at Wingu Florists Limited. Farmers have cashed in on the fact that the cultivation of strawberry plant does not require much land and the strawberry plant produces many leaves within a short period due to the fact that it grows vegetatively. For example, with only one branch, which is planted and watered, produces 30 more branches after just a month.
The leaves have become so demanded that certain farmers are even abandoning other horticultural farming methods to concentrate purely on strawberry leaves farming. Strawberry plants fall into two varieties. Those that produces more berries but few leaves and those that produces more leaves but less berries. “When I realized how desperate these florist companies were for these leaves, I decided to take a risk and major in just the farming of strawberry leaves. I have never been disappointed 16 months later. Every month my one eighth acre through which I have planted the leaves gives me a return of Sh15, 000 from just the leaves. The market is that lucrative,” says Kiige Ndonga another farmer from Mbari ya Mboche.
The strawberry leaves’ farming has also come as a welcome relieve for the farmers who have also been having problems accessing the international market for the other horticultural products that they grow. Exporters demand stringent conditions that the farmers must meet. For example the European Union, and particularly the United Kingdom, who consume most of Kenya’s avocados has become particularly sensitive to food safety issues especially with imports from Africa.
The exporters therefore only buy Grade one fruits from the farmers, those that have no black marks. Black marks are interpreted to mean the fruit is infected by diseases and is of low quality. “It used to be a very big problem when we started. Exporters would turn down half of the fruits we delivered to them due to this problem. This is now a thing of the past thanks to the extensive training we have received from KALRO on better farming practices,” says Gichuki.
For farmers like Berreta Ciugu, one of the members of Mbari ya Mboche, who have freed themselves from the yoke of erratic coffee prices to a more promising and under exploited horticultural products, diversification has been the secret to success. With unpredictable global market which may affect output, ventures like the strawberry leaves mean they have something to fall back to. But as research and replanting continues the sector’s now growing number of processors and exporters claim that Kenya has the opportunity to gain yet much more from the blossoming horticultural sector.