By George Munene
For Elisha Onzilu, switching from passion fruits to tree tomatoes proved the best farming decision he’s ever made. Now harvesting at least 35 tons of the egg-shaped fruit annually from his farms in Uasin Gishu and Elgeyo Marakwet; “a kilogram of the fruit usually has a farmgate price of Sh 60-70, my only regret as you might imagine is that I do not have more land to put under this wondrous fruit,” he rues.
The previous day he had to defer on a phone call interview as he was en route to delivering some 1.5 tonnes of the fruit to Nairobi, over the course of the day he said he will be ferrying another 0.7 tonnes. “As more people are catching on to tamarillo’s numerous health benefits there is an ever-expanding market that is hard to satisfy,” says the farmer who once supplied Nakumatt outlets across East Africa with the fruit.
Elisha’s Journey into tree tomato farming begun some 10 years ago, catalyzed by his search for an alternative fruit to passion fruits which he’d found to have a high production cost: “The initial cost in setting up an acre under passion fruits could run me Sh230,000 while on the same piece of land it costs Sh 130-150,000 to establish tree tomatoes (one year from sowing seedlings to first fruit),” Elisha explains. This caters to everything; land preparation, seedlings, labor, manuring, fertilizers and transport costs.
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While a tree can yield up to three kilograms, to avoid getting frustrated he advises farmers to scale down their expectations to at least one kilogram of fruit for every harvest. An acre should conservatively give 700 kilograms of fruit, at Sh60 on the kilo this earns Sh42,000 for every harvest, i.e., every two weeks.
Passion fruits require exhaustive regular routine management practices such as pruning and trailing besides being easily susceptible to diseases. Tree tomato harvests are also more to passion fruits which is exacerbated by the fact that passion fruits require a three-month pause in harvesting to allow for the regrowth of shoots. Tree tomatoes are harvestable throughout the year.
Passion fruits prices often fluctuate and at times crater to as low as Ksh20 a kilogram. Tamarillos for their part, usually hold steady at Sh60 to 70 with prices rarely falling below Sh50. This also partly owes to the ubiquity of passion fruits. Though more farmers are gradually taking up tree tomato growing they are still not as widely accessible.
To satisfactorily manage an acre of tree tomatoes, Elisha says he spends about Sh10,000 after every monthly harvest—this covers the control of pests as well as nourishing plants through manure and fertilizer application.
In growing tree tomatoes the most critical factor to consider is feeding—they are vociferous in their consumption of fertilizers and water. Tree tomatoes can be harvested every two weeks, but for this to be continued over the tree’s 5-to-10-year lifespan it needs to be regularly nourished.
A farmer needs to apply 160-200Kg of synthetic fertilizers per acre every three months for top dressing. This is buttressed by 15-20 tonnes of manure applied for the fruit’s lifetime. This is especially crucial as Onzillu illuminates; “unlike artificial fertilizers which have a limited utility window the tree is able to feed on organic fertilizer throughout its life expectancy.”
Tree tomatoes are broad-leafed this means they have a high respiration rate thus consume a lot of water. For Elisha, watering is done twice or thrice a week feeding each plant up to 10 liters.
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The usually rainless December to March months he says, are characterised by reduced yields, this can be ameliorated by irrigation.
The location of his farms in Elgeyo Marakwet which has an altitude of 2,700 meters also gives him a competitive advantage to other tree tomato farmers. A 2500–3000-meter altitude is the most ideal for tamarillos as fruits grown here have a red almost purple hue that is preferred by consumers.
Due to increased farmer inquiries in order to satisfy burgeoning market demand, Elisha has also ventured into seedling production, selling each at Sh10.
Elisha Onzilu: 0791919170