Farmers ditch coffee for watermelon on quick returns

Quick returns and ready market for watermelons is seeing Central Kenya farmers ditch coffee, a long time darling, with some farmers reaping upto Sh200,000 from watermelon on the same acreage that had coffee.

Macharia Ngari, a farmer in Mukurwe-ini District, Nyeri County, says that he first planted the crop on an acre in 2008 on trial basis but he is now a happy watermelon farmer. At the time, he had 300 coffee trees on his land and was hesitant to destroy them because the world prices were showing signs of rising.

Before he embarked on watermelon farming, he surveyed growing the areas. What he saw convinced him that the returns from crop were better than coffee. “I could see farmers in Ukambani, Embu and Marigat growing these fruits, which have a high demand in the market and I did not understand why we don’t grow them,” he said.

Ngari says earnings from the first yields of the crop were impressive. “I recall unloading my consignment of the fruit at Githurai Market in Nairobi to come for them the next day since there was a heavy traffic jam,” he said. Mr Ngari says that a vendor at the market, who was to take care of his produce, decided to sell it. “Several buyers preferred my watermelons since they were juicy and sweeter than the rest,” he said.

Today, he has done away with coffee farming to concentrate on the fruit, which he says has transformed his life. Last December, the farmer earned a profit of about Sh142,000 from the fruit he had planted in October. “We received about Sh187,000 in total since the watermelons were in high demand going for Sh28 a kilogramme. We had spent about Sh45,000 on farm inputs and labour,” said Mr Ngari. “This has changed our minds about coffee.”

According to him, he has never made any meaningful profit from the cash crop. “The much I have earned from sale of coffee is less than Sh20,000 and this is after toiling for at least a year,” he says. Together with his wife, Mary Wambura Ngari , the farmer has influenced some of their neighbours to replace coffee with watermelons.

The provincial director of agriculture Kenneth Njagi says the area where Mr Ngari’s farm is located has ideal conditions for growing the crop. “The fruit requires high temperatures, which is found in lower parts of Mukurwe-ini but on the higher grounds of Central Province they can’t do well,” Mr Njagi said.

Mrs Catherine Maina, a primary school teacher and Mr Ngari’s sister-in-law, decided to grow watermelons last year.
“Since 1978, when I got married here, I have never made more than Sh4,000 profit from my coffee and don’t forget that this is after one year of hard work,” says Mrs Maina as she explains the reasons why she shifted to the fruit.

According to most farmers in the province it is ill-advised to abandon coffee farming from other crops at this time.
Again, prices in the world market were poor. Things have since changed and despite numerous cases of theft of coffee, especially in Central Kenya where the crop is mainly grown, farmers have been busy trying to improve their production.

Some have been trying to either graft the old Arabica coffee varieties of Sl28, SL 34 and K7 with Batian and Ruiru 11 or replacing these old tree altogether. Batian and Ruiru 11 are hybrid varieties Coffee Research Foundation (CRF) has developed, which are resistant to common diseases like Coffee Berry Disease (CBD) and Leaf Lust. These are two diseases that hamper coffee production.

Even farmers in parts of Nakuru, Bungoma, Kitale and Uasin Gishu have started planting coffee owing to the improved prices. So why would a farmer abandon coffee, at a time when its market is promising more than any other time in the history of the sub-sector?.

Why? Mrs Maina says: “I realized that my neighbour Wambura (Ngari’s wife) was making big money within a very short time and I could not resist the temptation of trying the same business.” Watermelons take between 75 to 90 days to mature and they don’t require much attention like coffee, which a farmer has to look after for a whole year before delivering the berries to the market.

Mr Ngari is convinced that by the end of this month, he will be in a position to make at least Sh300,000 plus from his one-acre farm. The watermelons they planted in January are being irrigated using waters from neighbouring Nyakoro River.

“By the time we start harvesting the fruits next month, they will be in high demand since they are out of season,” he said. The Ngari family is now in the process of buying a canter lorry if the watermelon business remains promising.
Together with her neighbours, they are also planning to apply for a loan from a bank to drill a borehole to enable them start growing the melons throughout the year.

Watermelons as Mr Njagi of the office of Central Provincial Director of Agriculture says require a lot of water.
But why most farmers feel discouraged from growing watermelons in Central Kenya is because they are not environmental friendly.

As Mrs Ngari points out they don’t grow under a shade. “We have been forced to cut down trees in our one-acre farm to allow watermelons to grow. You can see it is only Grevillea trees (Grevillea Robusta), which have survived because we only prune them to provide shade,” Mrs Ngari said.