Coastal and Eastern farmers have now scaled cultivation of the multi purpose tamarind tree whose fruits are now being sought after by food processors and hoteliers as they look at ways of cutting cost with local spices and raw materials for food processing. The hoteliers and food processors who have traditionally relied on expensive methods of making spices or resulted into importing them from market leaders Zanzibar and India at prohibitive cost, have now realized a cheaper and easier way in the tamarind pods.
This in return has seen farmers who had long abandoned the tree for taking long before maturing, while competing for nutrients with other cash crops now rush to clear swathes of land to accommodate the tree as majority of those that grow wildly now become farmer's darling for their pods. The tamarind tree has huge branches that which provide a dense shade that inhibit growth of the crop beneath it. The tree's growth, another turn off for farmers, takes less than 1 m per year.
Trees established from seed generally do not start to produce seed until they are at least seven years old, while trees from grafts usually bear fruit within three to four years.
But the discovery that the fruits called tamarinds are multipurpose and chefs can use them to provide a sweet and tart flavour, to tenderize meat and vegetable dishes while being used in drinks and deserts is now seeing farmers relax their loathe for the tree. What started in 2003 in Mwingi as the first pay out by farmers who supplied the tamarinds to Fonseca International hotel in Mombasa motivated more farmers in Eastern province to re invest in the tree after the first lot got their first payment in 2008. Farmers could earn as much as Sh400 for a kilo of the pods with a four year old tree yielding 400kg. In Coast province more than 300 farmers are now anticipating their first large payout after having been convinced to plant the tree by food processors in 2008.
Amina Mayub is such farmer having invested in 3 tamarind trees. Though she has had to pay the price as she can no longer plant the traditional maize and peas in her quarter of an acre, she says she expects good returns from the tamarind venture. “I have been trying other plants that dont require much fertilizer like nappier, but I just decided to concentrate on tamarind because the food processors gave us incentives to grow the tree,” she says. The incentives include a monthly Sh2500 to tend to the tree which includes pruning.
Environmentalists have pitched for adoption of the forgotten tree which they argue has potential especially in land that is bushy, to transform small holder farmer's earning. In India for example which is the top producer,tamarind is grown in orchard-like plantations for domestic use and export with small holder farmers forming 75 percent of the total national production. The growing uses of tamarind fruits are therefore poised to make it the much sought after fruit, which could open room for Kenyan farmers in the export market. In the Sahel, the fruit pulp is used primarily for sauces, porridge and juice.
In Zimbabwe, the leaves are added to soup and the flowers are an ingredient in salads while in northern Nigeria, the roots are used for leprosy treatment. In many parts of India the roots are the principal ingredient in remedies for cardiac diseases.