Central Kenya farmers find fortunes in strawberry leaves

Farmers in Central Kenya who have been cultivating strawberries for export have discovered an equally lucrative market for the strawberry leaves they used to discard, but which are now emerging as a crop in high demand.The strawberry leaves are being bought by decorating and florist firms in Thika and Nairobi, with farmers now being overwhelmed by the demand for the leaves.

Members of the Mbari ya Mboche farmer Self Help group in Kandara area of Thika District have now come together to sell the leaves, with the venture proving so successful that some farmers have now focused on only growing the strawberry plant that produces more leaves than berries.

A single branch of the plant goes for Sh1.50, with farmers tying them in bundles of 100 branches that sell for Sh150 each. In one week the flower and decoration companies request over 30,000 such bundles, which is what has driven farmers to form groups specializing in the leaves.

The cultivation of strawberry plant does not need much land and the plant grows vegetatively, ensuring the production of many leaves. A farmer only needs to cut the bottom of one branch, plant it, water it for the first week and within two more weeks the plant starts producing leaves. After another three weeks, the leaves are ready for harvesting. One such plucked and planted branch can produce about 30 more branches in a month.

Hanna Ruthi, one of the farmers at the Mbari ya Mboche farmer Self Help Group is now mixing both the strawberry plants that produce the berries and the variety that produces the leaves on her half acre piece of land. When the berries do not produce much the leaves never disappoint.

“If you want maximum leaves you cannot go for the variety that produces both berries and leaves. You have to invest in the one that produces more leaves. That’s why I grow both varieties,” she said.

Hannah together with the other farmers, harvest the leaves in the same way tea is harvested, tie them together in bundles and meet at the market place where flower companies inspect the leaves for quality before buying them.

The money is paid to the treasurer of the Mbari ya Mboche farmers group who then pays individual farmers according to the quantity delivered.

“We have farmer field schools every Monday where we train farmers on how to maintain the quality of the leaves, and ensure they are fresh when they deliver them, because initially the flower companies used to turn down the  majority of our farmers’ leaves due to their bad shape. We are glad it never happens now,” said Mr. Michael Kimondo.  

In those early days, many leaves were discoloured or wilting, most often because they had been attacked by pests.

But the group also now gets extensive training from Ministry of Agriculture officials on integrated pest management practices which include traditional methods of pest control. Hannah, for example, has learnt to spray her strawberry leaves with a mix of wood ash and traditional brew Muratina, a method she has found cheap and effective.

Timoth Oloo from Omega florists in Kasarani Nairobi, one of the major buyers of the strawberry leaves from the Central  Kenya farmers, said the demand for bouquets, which was traditionally limited to offices, churches and events, has now moved to individuals, with demand for the flowers for home decorations growing ten fold in the recent past. This is what has been fuelling the need for the strawberry leaves, which he said are an important component of the bouquet due to their shape and smell.

“Right now the farmers in Thika are only producing half of what we need. That’s why we are encouraging them to train more farmers and now intend to increase the price per branch by an additional Sh1 as an incentive for them to produce more,” he said.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter