By George Munene
Andrew Simiyu, owner of Kusini Farms in Kwale County has ventured into the lucrative vanilla market by farming 500 vanilla plants on his three-acre farm where he potentially aims to earn about eight million in revenues after harvest.
Vanilla is an essential in the food industry for making confectionery and yogurts. As well as in the making of air fresheners. A mature vanilla tree can produce 80 beans with a single freshly harvested vanilla bean costing between Sh200 and Sh250. Once it is cured and graded its value could quadruple. Grade A variety measuring 22-18 cm is the highest quality which retails at Sh1000, grade B measures 18-13/12 cm and the lowest graded C is below 12 cm, often used to make vanilla essence. These price rates could further increase if the vanilla is exported.
A vanilla vine takes about two and a half to three years to mature and does not demand much space as it is a vertical growing plant. Its roots also do not creep far from its base. Though he has just 500 plants, 2,500 vanilla trees can fit into a single acre.
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Simiyu’s planted his vanilla strategically next to mulberry and cashew nut trees. This, he has found, shades the vanilla and is better than having them on posts as they get to feed on the tree’s buck making them healthier and mature faster.
Before he planted vanilla, the 3 acre piece of land was largely barren with a scattering of cashew trees.
Simiyu first ventured into Vanilla farming in 2018 after acquiring some information on how to successfully grow the crop from KALRO-Matuga and vanilla farmers growing the crop commercially in Zanzibar, Tanzania and Uganda as he couldn’t find anyone growing the crop in large scale here in Kenya. It is also from these farmers that he sourced his seedling cuttings from.
However, he lost half of his initial vines in 2019 due to severe drought. Having learnt from his missteps, he has now planned for organic sustained growth. Once his vines are mature and ready to flower he will cut off their tops to extract new cuttings that he can replant as new vines. This will double his crop. If needed he will consider importing more cuttings.
He plans to get his first harvest this December and plans to sell to high-end beach resorts in the Kenyan coastal region, where his farm is located. His aim is to offer them a steady supply of the locally produced product, saving them importation costs. Once he’s scaled his operation and got more farmers on board, he targets to supply to local dairy companies who rely on the imported artificial vanilla flavours for yogurt making and air freshener manufacturers who use the product’s extract for their sprays.
Further, he is keen to have his produced measured and tested by experts to ascertain that its quality measures up to the world’s best, thus raise the value of the Kenyan produce and have our country’s footprint on the global vanilla market.