Kenya is edging closer to growing apples large scale after importation of three low chilling high yielding cultivators from US which will also greatly bridge the acute production gap, even as local vanguard farmers cross varieties that increases maturity from 23 months to just nine months.
Demand for the fruit of the Kazakhstan origin has been on an upward trajectory owing to its numerous health benefits chief among them its ability to fight cancer, but Kenya has been snailing in embraced farming of the fruit and largely depends on imports. Currently Kenya's expenditure on importation of apples is in excess of Sh109.5million annually, with the production having declined by 260 percent since 2005.
Chief among the stall in production has been a change in plan by companies that traditionally specialized in apple production and marketing. Anderson Orchards, which has since changed its name to Mt. Elgon Flowers was a market leader in apple production in the 90's but changed tact due to lack of market and incentives to grow the fruit. It chose concentrate on other profitable ventures like flowers and citrus. The dismal performance of the fruit is also blamed on lack of elite planting materials and low performing varieties Winter Banana and Rome beauty that takes over 23 years to produce fruits being the only varieties in the country.
The government now alive to the fact that it is missing millions in revenue from the fruit has stepped up its commitment by importing high yielding varieties from US. The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) has acquired MAL-BRAEBURN/M7-CV1, MALUS GALA/M26-CV1 and MALUS FUJI/M26-CV1 varieties which are suitable for a lower altitude and can be grown successfully in areas ranging from 1200m above sea level. This means the varieties can do well in most parts of the country.
The 65 imported seedlings will first undergo multiplication at KARI horticultural Research station in Thika then undergo adaptive trials before it can be released to farmers. Farmers will have to wait for 36 months before they can start planting the new varieties. But even as government steps up to apple farming local farmers have been active in grafting low yielding varieties with superior varieties they get from fellow farmers from other countries during farmer exchange programmes.
James Wambugu is one such farmer. Having developed an interest in apple farming when he got a tender to supply fruits to Mt Kenya Safari Club in Nanyuki, he struggled to get the apple seedlings. He would buy the South African apples at Sh20 and sell them at the same amount. “Of course I was making losses because I also had to fork from my pocket the transport charges. Buying the few local varieties never helped at all,,” he said.
But his quest to get a good local variety would take him to the vast Mt Kenya where he unsuccessfully failed to get any variety. Still determined he moved to Aberdare Forest where he found two trees believed to have been left behind by white settlers.
Word has it that the valuable trees were transferred into the forest by Europeans to keep them away from Africans after sensing that freedom was coming.
Wambugu improved the trees by grafting with a variety from Israel that he got from a friend. The new variety which matured after nine months producing more fruits returned such impressive results that KARI named it after him, Wambugu Apple variety. He has sold his apples to traders from as far as Canada, Denmark, Switzerland, Zaire and Tanzania majority who insist its the perfect variety in making wine. Wambugu now has an apple nursery that houses over 5,000 seedlings.
A single seedling fetches Sh1,000 while a fruit sell for between Sh80 and Sh100 depending on size. By the time he sells all the seedlings in the nursery he will have earned Sh5million.
This, excluding the revenue he will get from the fruits which are harvested twice a year in January and December. “A tree can produce 500 fruits or more depending on age as production improves with time, meaning a single tree can earn you about Sh50,000,”he said.
This lucrative market is what has propelled countries like China to global market with the Asian giant producing more than half of all the apples around the globe at 35 million tons annually. The biggest importers include Russia, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. Globally apple is regarded as the third most valuable fruit crop, following grapes and oranges. The 2011 apple crop was valued at $2.72 billion.