Watermelons flourish in the middle of barren farms

Between large swathes of maize plantations in the weather beaten Rarieda terrain stands a one tenth acre of succulent water melons that have gives 41 year old Joseph Onduso Sh30,000 in profits every month, at a time when his neighbours stare at barren farms.

Rarieda experiences poor rainfall throughout the year. Images of wilting maize and sorghum fields, thorn trees and fading grass dot the area. Cows lazily walk from one farm to another trying their luck on anything they can find from the dry ground. But next to Opany stream a man a panga on one hand and a jembe on the other carefully turns one water melon while weeding.

Onduso’s joy knows no bounds as he is one of those whose fate has conspired to give the joy of reaping the fruits of his labour as he opted to venture into a rare field where many small scale farmers have ignored or they are ignorant about. The farmer says he first came into contact with the fruit when he was working at Bandari College in Mombasa.

Onduso says he used to loathe the fruit which he considered as fit for only foreigners and other people who were aping western food culture. Years after leaving Bandari college and settling at the rural home as a peasant farmer, he one day attended an agricultural show at Kisumu after which realisation dawned on him that the fruit could be a better alternative cash crop to cotton that had collapsed.

A survey he carried out through farmers field schools he used to attend as a location farmers' representative, established that most of the fruits which were being sold in Kisumu and other towns in Central Nyanza originated from Busia. He was encouraged that the fruit has a high demand and could be grown in areas where there is little rainfall and is not affected by the grain farmers' nightmare - the striga weed.
His survey established that majority of farmers in the region cultivate mostly fruits like mangoes, bananas, paw paw and oranges while guavas grow as wild fruits.

After his first attempt on watermelon on 1/10 of an acre, he realised that the fruit could turn to be gold with a well established market as his trial fruit gave him a profit of Sh30,000.

Onduso disclosed that for the last three years he has been growing the fruit using skills and ecological requirements he learnt from the Horticultural Crops Development Authority and from the local divisional extension officers.

He attributed the demand of the fruit to its nutritional value as individuals, hotel owners and even supermarkets are all competing for the stock of the fruit, making it to be one of the most demanded fruits in the country.

He said he has managed to meet the demand of local customers, in his expanded farm where he grows varieties of the fruit which include Crimson Red which resembles pumpkin with a yellow stripped green skin and red sweet flesh, Sugar Baby which has plain green skin and red flesh and Cantaloupe.

Onduso said his rough calculations on the income a farmer could get from planting watermelons in an acre of land is far much higher than that of growing maize arguing that a striga weed infect-ed acre farm would hardly produce 15 bags of maize which could fetch about Sh15,000 while the same farm under watermelons can easily fetch a farmer Sh230,000 within three months.

While maize could be grown at most twice depending on the rainfall, watermelons can be grown comfortably thrice using relay planting techniques where before harvesting ripe crops, there shall be already upcoming new crops. "It will be less important to me to over rely on other food crops such as maize from which I may only get Ksh 15,000 from an acre of land during a bumper harvest while I could earn more than that from a quarter of an acre," observed Onduso.

He said that his market outreach tar-gets the Horticultural Crops Development Authority, Nakumatt supermarkets, hotels owners and other interested individuals. He also wants to bring together other watermelon farmers so that they can form an association to sell their fruits in a central market to avoid exploitation by the middlemen.

The farmer noted that due to changing climatic conditions, ballooning population and dwindling resources, there is need for farmers to be sensitized on horticulture as cash crop especially the melons pointing out that it is still being grown by few people on small patches of land, while maize and beans features as the main food crop and cash crop. Onduso noted that if farmers are educated on the novelty for watermelon as a cash earner, the new market outlet occasioned by the demand of the fruit will greatly improve their livelihoods as the area is disadvantaged by the unpredictable rains which most of the time results into poor harvest.

He recalled that farmers were reluctant to cultivate watermelon in large quantities over doubts of its economic viability but he has now managed to convince and train some of them on the benefits of planting of the fruit. "Several farmers have borrowed my idea, and are now enjoying the benefits," said Onduso who now plans to increase his one care piece of land to two acres.