Bitter times for fruit farmers as new disease strikes

A passion fruit disease that wipes the entire crop in days and which has baffled scientists, is threatening to reverse the gains made by the fledgling sector as farmers count millions in losses.

Farmers who have traditionally relied on maize, coffee and other cereals for income have found new cash cow in passion fruit farming following low yields of the former, occasioned by poor market prices and corruption. The growing demand for passion fruits especially by soft drink companies who have reverted to local sourcing following prohibitive import duty on fruit pulp has enticed farmers to invest in the fruit’s cultivation.

But few years into the business passion fruit has now become sour with farmers especially in Central and Eastern region been caught offguard by the disease known as dieback, which has in some cases wiped away farmers’ entire investments.

"Unless quick steps are taken, this disease will diminish passion fruits farming in this region with devastating results. Majority of the farmers in Laikipia rely on fruits for their incomes especially with the sunny weather experienced all the year round," lamented Francis Kiaraho, a farmer in Dimkon village in Laikipia County.

One of the most successful fruit farmers in the county, Kiaraho has incorporated water saving strategies to cope with effects of climate change through harvesting and storage of surface run-off for use in irrigation. The vicious tenacity of the dieback disease brought home its destruction on Kiaraho's farm when 100 passion fruits trees were wiped away. This 100 per cent destruction of the crop lead to a ShI0,000 loss in investments.

"It has been a huge loss for me and other farmers in the region as there seems to be no solution in sight. We have also witnessed our crops dying from the aerial shoots to the stem and finally roots," added Kiaraho, as he toured his 12 acre piece of land where he also farms bananas, oranges, agroforestry trees mainly Grevillea and Eucalyptus as well as sugarcane.

According to a recent joint survey con-ducted by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the Department of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at Kenyatta University, dieback disease on passion fruits has increasingly reduced yields by 50-100 per cent. It is a recently emerged disease that is highly virulent and causing 100 per cent orchard loss within a short time. Like a burning cigarette, leaves, shoots and stems slowly turn into a black powdery dust and fall off. Slowly the whole crop succumbs.

The disease has no effective control measure. The survey confirmed its status as a major threat to passion fruit production in Cen-tral and Eastern Kenya. The major passion fruit growing areas include Thika, Murang'a, Nyeri, Kirinyaga, Embu and Meru counties in the Mt Kenya region. Central and Eastern Kenya. The major passion fruit growing areas include Thika, Murangia, Nyeri, Kirinyaga, Embu and Meru counties in the Mt Kenya region.

In Rift Valley, the crop does well in Nakuru and BaringO counties. Other regions where passion fruits thrive include Kakamega, Kisii, Taita-Taveta, Kwale and Kilifi counties. Growers have reported increased dieback severity in times of drought, which suggests linkage to climate change effects, while some agronomic practices, such as pruning without disinfecting the tools can accelerate its spread, according to the survey.