A group of fourty farmers have found solace and market guarantee with passion farming in the wake of dwindling coffee and tea prices which has now seen them attract foreign investors who have been wowed by their commitment over the years. Ngethu village Farmers' Association has become a highly respected enterprise that - with hard labour and considerable skill - grows, harvests, grades and packs top quality produce destined for markets thousands of miles away.
It is not surprising that passion fruit planting is on the increase. While prices for cash crops like tea and coffee have been falling, passion vines can provide a very high return. It is estimated that more than 400 hectares of smallholder land in Kenya is planted with vines, pushing production to more than 30 million kilograms of the fruit a year. The majority is consumed within Kenya, but the amount exported which is about five per cent is growing. Countries like Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi have provided good markets for Kenyan passion fruit but demand in Europe is also on the up. Meeting European buyer specifications is the passion fruit farmers' latest challenge.
"We are learning all the things we need to do to become compliant and certified to the highest level, in order to supply European buyers," says Association leader, Chege Dominic. It is grading day. Ripe fruits are being brought by the bucket load from individual plots to the small rented premises, which serve as a pack house. "We follow hygiene procedures: everyone washes their hands before handling the fruit, we wear hats, and we keep the pack house clean." Every fruit is inspected and if perfect is then wiped with a cloth dipped in chlorinated water before being packed in neat rows in exporter-supplied cardboard cartons that hold two kilos of fruit.
In accordance with international fresh produce export requirements, the boxes are labeled so the buyers and eventual consumers can trace their origin to Kenya, the exporter and, if necessary, the Ngethu farmers. The group sells about 450 boxes a week of top-grade fruits. The incentive to supply top quality is considerable: at about Ssh150 per box, this provides twice the price of fruit of uneven size or with blemishes.
The group's success has not been without challenges. It evolved out of a failed group which was too big and too divided to pull in one direction, and thereby maintain the consistency and reliability required by exporters. Since the Ngethu farmers formed their smaller association nearly two years ago, they have worked hard to organise the management of the group, and the advice and support channels, so that individual members get timely and regular tips to deal with problems in their plots.
Passion fruit is not an easy crop to grow. With a productive life of about six years the vines, planted at two metre intervals and in rows three metres apart, need steady support, constant care, and regular pruning and feeding with the correct fertiliser. As the plants can carry buds, flowers and ripening fruit all at the same time, pest control is not easy and without prompt attention to problems, insect infestation and disease can quickly escalate. "If we want good quality fruits, we must always be on the watch for pests and disease. We intercrop with pigeonpea and beans which distract insects from invading the passion, especially during the flowering stage," explains Maina.
The group have also experimented with sunflower. "Some insects which love sunflower have become our friends as beneficial insects, since they feed on small insects, such as thrips, that attack the passion fruits." Amongst the vines, Maina points at a vine stem about 50 centimetres above ground. "This is the graft where purple passion, which is high-yielding, is joined with a yellow-coloured passion that is tough and suits these soils." The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) has recently opened a new propagation centre not far from Ngethu at Thika, to supply a passion variety known locally as Coast Yellow, which has proven resistance to soil diseases.
Investing so much time and trouble in a crop needs to be worthwhile, and currently prospects for passion are good. It is predicted that demand, especially for export, will rise rapidly in the next five years, not just for whole fruit but also for its components. It can be juiced, and the oil - extracted from passion fruit seeds - is increasingly in demand for the cosmetics industry. Even the shell can be used in cattle feed. Experienced farmers like John Maina are often asked for advice. "It feels good to have achieved what we have. I like to share our experiences with others but in agriculture a good farmer will always keep learning."