A thorny and spiky fruit vilified by most Kenyans for its strange look and taste is now recording fanatical uptake thanks to endorsement by doctors who recommend it due to its numerous health benefits including slowing the ageing process and boosting the immune system.
The soaring demand has seen farmers return to planting the fruit that has traditionally been neglected for being ugly and tasteless. The thorny melon fruit takes between 28 and 45 days to re-produce and then takes about two weeks to mature and takes about two days to ripen.
Meru County is one of the counties which has warmed up to thorn melon cultivation. Mr. Fred Mutura one of the pioneer thorn melon fruit farmers has allocated one acre of his farm to the cultivation of the fruit.
"I was introduced to the fruit almost two years ago by a friend who had bought it at the Meru open air market at Gakoromone," Mutura says. The small-scale horticultural farmer, who is in his late 20s says that on seeing the fruit at his friend's house, he got curious and wanted to know more about the fruit .
"My friend gave me a piece of the strange looking fruit to taste," he says. Mutura did not like the taste of the fruit, and informed his friend that he had been duped into wasting his money to buy such a 'tasteless and ugly looking' fruit. "My friend told me researchers had recommended the thorny melon fruit for its higher nutritional value compared to other fruits. They also said it had medicinal value to the human body," says Mutura.
This pricked his interest, and he sought how he could acquire some seeds for his horticultural farm located about 30 kilometres from Meru town. Mr Mutura did not bother to do any research or consult agricultural experts in the area as he was really in a hurry to be the first farmer to grow the fruit. However, his peers were not as enthusiastic and some scoffed at him for planting the 'strange' fruit.
"They told me nobody would buy a strange looking 'thing' which resembled a wild fruit," says Mutura. However, he grew it anyway. The fruit does not require insecticides, thus saving the farmer a lot of money for farm inputs.
"One fruit tree can produce about 30 fruits, especially during the warm season as it does not do well during long rains," he says. Getting a market in Meru was a challenge since residents were hesitant to try the melon.
"However, I was able to get some customers, especially those from western Kenya who were aware of the fruit's nutritional value," says Mutura. The first sale was discouraging as he had to beg residents to try the fruit. "Today, I sell at Sh20 to Sh30 a kilo, and I hope to one day sell at Sh100.
Vendors at the local markets sell one fruit at Sh 10 and Sh20 depending on the size," he says. The yellowish-green coloured pigment found in the seeds and pulps of the spiky skin fruit contains Vitamin A which helps in strengthening of the body's immune system and also helps in re-pairing and protecting DNA, hence slowing the ageing process.
Mutura is now mobilising farmers to plant the melon and to form a farmers' interest group so that they can access credit from government funds. He says one of the most challenging requirements of the thorny melon is that it must be planted alone as its creepers spread widely, occupying space and suffocating other crops. The farmer he hopes that one day farmers in the area will start greenhouse farming of the fruit so as to reduce the cost of production and increasing their income.
A private medical practitioner in Meru, Dr Peter Kiambi, says the melon provides the necessary nutrients and micro-nutrients important for the body. Kiambi has encouraged residents eat the thorny melon more to acquire the necessary nutrients cheaply.