BY STEVEN MULANDA
Traversing Machakos County Malaa area to be precise, we find Waweru Murimi, one of dragon fruits pioneer farmers in the country. His farm is well dotted with the fruits giving an impression of a daring and go getter person.
Waweru recounts that his interest in cultivating dragon fruits came about while visiting one of his friends, who narrated to him about the cash cow fruit and its myriad health benefits. His friend revealed to him that he was on his way to order a consignment of the fruit seedlings from China, as they were not readily available in Kenya. “We had a close discussion with him and at the end of the conversation I was to give him Ksh 12,000. I could not manage to raise that money then, I gave him what was in my pocket Ksh 8,000 with the anticipation of getting the seedlings in a fortnight and clearing the remaining balance; that was in 2016. I didn’t get the seedlings and neither did I get back my money. He vanished into thin air,” he painfully narrated.
He did not give up as this to him was a wakeup call since every business has its own shares of ups and downs. He decided to learn more about the fruit from internet; he goggled where he could get the fruit in Africa, he discovered Mr. Max van Heerden from South Africa was commercially farming dragons. “We began communicating with him and he was willing to supply me with the fruit cuttings. By then I had learnt that propagation of the fruit from seeds would take me 4 to 6 years before fruiting and through cuttings it would take one to one and a half years. I started the process of importing the cuttings; went to KEPHIS to get the import permit as a first requirement, I sent the import permit to Max to acquire a phytosanitary certificate. After clearing all the transactions that were required, true to his words after two weeks I received my plants. Max later on became my mentor as we could communicate regularly,” Murimi narrates. The few plants he imported in November 2016 have multiplied to over 2,500 plants through propagation.
Dragon fruit, also known as Pitaya is ostensibly a new fruit to the Kenyan growers. It derives its name from its leathery spiked skin that resembles the mythical dragon surrounded by beautiful pink flowers.
Once it matures the fruit is juicy and contains various nutrients such as vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates, iron and magnesium among others. Numerous health benefits have been attributed to the fruit such as being rich in anti-oxidants and low calories thus good for people suffering heart disease, diabetes among others.
The fruit which is consumed raw or used in adding value to other products such as juices and yoghurts was voted as the super fruit in 2013 by America’s nutritionist and dieticians. For the last five years, the fruit has begun to gain traction with Kenyan farmers, who are minting good returns. A kilo of dragon fruits which comprise of five to six fruits is retailing between KSh1000 and KSh2000. The fruit is in three varieties; bright red, purple and yellow white skinned. The yellow variety is more sweet compared bright red and purple varieties and they are more expensive.
Dragon fruit is a climbing cactus that can grow up to 9 metres. Farmers growing the fruit need to support it on a live plant or pole. It does well in semi-arid areas and requires less space; can be planted in containers thus very ideal for urban farmers. It’s not selective on soil type provided the soil is well drained; the worst enemy of the fruit is watered logged soil. Requires manure rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to enable it grow vigorously, to encourage flowering and fruiting. During the fruiting season and also in dry seasons, the plant requires frequent watering although it is drought resistance.
Murimi has been able to consolidate clients through social media. He propagates vines which retails Ksh 500 at his farm. He has joined various online dragon fruit farmers’ groups to get more experience regarding the fruit; growing techniques, pruning techniques and basically what is required to take care of the plant.
In October 2020, Murimi with two other dragon fruit farmers in Kenya; Antony Mugambi, and Jennifer George formed a Facebook group account ‘Dragon Fruit Farmers Network Kenya’ with the aim of educating Kenyan farmers about dragon fruit farming and the health benefits of the fruit. Through the group, they have been able to tap in veterans who have been growing the fruit from other countries.
Besides the Facebook group, Murimi offers free trainings on the cultivation of the fruit. He encourages people to grow the fruit not only for wealth creation but also for their health purposes. “For my case my family and I are the first consumers of the fruit because we are health conscious. Dragon fruit a day keeps the doctor away,” he says.
“Anyone with the intentions of venturing into dragon fruit farming is highly welcomed, there is insatiable demand of the fruit in the Kenyan up market and we are not able to meet the demand. Up market places such as Karen, Muthaiga, Parklands and Westlands the demand is high and people in these places are good customers especially the Asians. Currently it is not the archaic agriculture, its agribusiness; young people need to invest in this field. Deagon fruit will be a future cash crop which will change the way of life in arid and semi-arid areas,” he advises.