Coffee farmers switch to horticulture for profits

Hannah Wairimu has never regretted uprooting 100 trees of poorly performing coffee from her two acre piece of land and replacing them with a variety of horticultural crops. Within five years of her investment in horticultural farming she has managed to educate two of her four children to university level and bought three cows to supplement her income.

Passion fruits, avocado and strawberry leaves have been the goldmine for this 48 year old widow. Thanks to the success of the horticulture market both locally and for export, she now earns Ksh 8 per avocado which she sells to private horticultural companies, a far cry from the Ksh 1 that a single avocado fetched in 2001. “In between my avocado trees I have managed to plant beans, maize and sweet potatoes for my family upkeep something I couldn’t do with coffee,” says Wanjiru explaining another of the reasons that inspired her to go into full time horticultural farming.

Wairimu is among the 25 members of the Mbari ya Mboche self help group, a community group united in their passion for farming and determination to access the market directly. Under the chairmanship of Mr. Gichuki, a retired officer from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) now turned farmer, the group has benefited from support of researchers at KARI Thika. The support resulted from a successful proposal submitted by the group to get into passion fruit farming. Advice from KARI 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.

In addition, farmers have learnt to add value to avocados and other fresh produce, including passion fruits, by making their own juices. At social gatherings or when holding a ceremony, they no longer have to buy commercial juices. “We intend to organize ourselves in order to set up a state of the art machine that will assist us produce commercial juices as we look for further ways to diversify our income,” says Gichuki..

Farming for exports has, however, been a tall order for the farmers as exporters demand stringent conditions that the farmers must meet.  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 KARI on better farming practices,” says Gichuki.

Wairimu, like her fellow farmers, been forced to change the type of avocado she grows from the traditional Fuerte to Hass, which is highly preferred for export. Hass, a medium-sized round fruit that turns purple at full maturity has a tough pebbly skin with an impressive shelf life and its flesh is used in a variety of food products.

 Fuerte a Mexican- Guatemalan hybrid is a shiny- green pear shaped fruit weighing 250 to 450g and, although it has high oil content, the oil isn’t of high quality. Fuerte is predominantly farmed by small-scale farmers for local markets.

KARI has however taught farmers, who find it hard to abandon the traditional Fuerte, on grafting which introduces the superior characteristics of Hass with the tough traits of Fuerte. “If you cut the stem of the Fuerte which is drought and disease resistant and combine it with the scion (top plant part) of the Hass which produces high quality fruits, you have a fruit fit for export. So farmers don’t have to weed out the Fuerte,” says Samuel Kiiru a KARI researcher.

The meteoric rise in demand for avocado, both locally and internationally, has been aided by new and expanding uses for the fruit, particularly with rising demand for avocado oil from the cosmetics industry, largely in France and Germany. Avocado oil in these countries is used to make cleansing creams, moisturizers, skin care products, lipsticks, bath oils and make up bases.

The main challenge for many of the farmers is concerns over the fruit’s shelf-life. Wairimu, who last season harvested three sacks of avocados, only managed to sell one sack. Two sacks went bad after the exporter delayed in collecting the fruit from the usual five days after harvest to seven.

The memories of the poor returns during 2010 are ever displayed in her wrinkled face anytime she is reminded of that season. “It’s still a painful venture you know. I had invested so much in avocado farming and it was my first time to harvest. Were it not for my fellow women farmers, I would have uprooted the trees like I did with coffee,” she says as she bends to weed around one of the avocado tree, a panga in one hand and a bunch of weeds in the other. She has, however, had greater success with passion fruit and growing strawberries.

Responding to the farmers’ please, KARI has started working at ways of increasing the fruit shelf life- from five to as many as 10 days- by slowing the production of the ethylene hormone responsible for avocado’s normal ripening.

For farmers such as Wairimu, once tied to painfully low prices for her coffee berries from the local factory, divesification into horticultural crops has already transformed her fortunes. 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.