No regrets for farmers who shifted to avocados
For her entire life as a civil servant, Esther Nderi grew coffee, maize and beans, among other crops, for supplemental income.
“I grew coffee on an acre until I retired in 2016 but poor prices and theft of our produce in factories made me think twice. I am one of those who were badly affected by the thefts,” says Esther, who hails from Ciumbu village, Makuyu, Murang’a County, and worked as an animal health assistant.
Fed up with the challenges in the sector, in 2017 she replaced her coffee with Hass avocados.
“I spent Sh40,000 on uprooting the crops and buying avocado seedlings at Sh150 each. I started with 20 but raised the number to 100, which now sit on an acre.”
Her story is not any different from that of Teresia Nyambura of Kahethu village, Kihumbuini, Murang’a, who as many other many farmers in the county has switched to avocados for higher returns.
Teresia, who worked in a factory as a data entry personnel from 1993 to 2014, went into avocado farming in 2008. She started with Fuerte.
“I had 10 trees, which I later grafted with Hass. So far I have some 20 trees,” she says, noting that then the market was not friendly as they sold to middlemen a fruit at Sh1-Sh2.50.
Teresia later joined a self-help group, Kihoto-Kihumbuini, formed in 2014 to help link avocado farmers with the market.
The group, which has 32 members, links up farmers with companies that export horticultural produce, for competitive markets, says Francis Njoroge, the chairman.
He has 35 Hass trees, which sit on half-acre, and planted them after uprooting bananas.
Poor coffee and tea prices
Members of the group sell their fruits to Kakuzi Plc, which exports them to the European Union and other markets.
Esther too sells her avocados as an independent supplier to Kakuzi, with the firm offering market to both individual farmers and groups.
Poor coffee and tea prices and ready export market for avocados has pulled many farmers in the county to the fruit.
“We work with 3,500 avocado farmers, many of them who grow the Hass variety mainly in Mt Kenya and North Rift. We also have farmers from Kisii and Western parts of the country deliver fruit to our packhouse,” says Jonathan Kipruto, Kakuzi horticulture assistant general manager.
To sell to the firm fruits, one must be vetted and meet Horticultural Crops Directorate (HCD) set guidelines for the export market, as well as those of Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis).
For HCD, these are proper record keeping of activities done on the farm; adhering to good agricultural practices; use of integrated pest management system to control pests and diseases and where chemicals are used, they should be those that are registered; ensuring fruits attain correct maturity levels before being harvested and adhering to hygiene during harvesting, hence meeting food safety standards.
Kephis, on the other hand, needs farmers to meet phytosanitary requirements that include fruits are free of pests and diseases and integrated pest management systems to control pests and diseases.
Mr Kipruto says the company only deals with and supports genuine farmers, a majority of them smallholders.
“We pay farmers a visit to ascertain they grow avocados before registering them as suppliers.
Besides that, other requirements we usually look out for are that mature fruits should have a maximum moisture content of 77 per cent, fruits should be free of defects and diseases and they should be of good sizes of 12-24 which fetch best process in the international market.”
As demand for the fruits in international markets grow, farmers are advised to observe good agricultural practices.
“They should get seedlings from nurseries approved by Kephis. A big pot size indicates a well-developed plantlet. One should observe leaf colour, which should be dark and glossy,” says Laban Mwaura, Kakuzi PLC assistant manager, extension services.
After land preparation, two feet cubic holes should be dug. The ideal space between the trees is 7 by 7 metres, he says, adding that though spacing depends on the farmer, size of the land and future plans like mixed cropping are key.
“Mix top soil with manure, agricultural lime, and fertiliser rich in phosphorus then sow the Hass seedlings. Ensure you don’t leave a basin to prevent seedlings from rotting due to stagnant water.”
Mwaura advises that seedlings should be staked to provide strength and support as they grow.
“Watering should be frequent and foliar fertiliser applied, top-dressing, pruning and scouting of pests and diseases should also be done.”
Under good agricultural practices, Hass avocado starts fruiting at two-and-half to three years after planting.
Mature fruits are ready for harvest when the colour is dark green and moisture content should be below 77 per cent.
On average, a tree can yield over 500 fruits per season.
Last year, the price of Hass avocado (packed in a four kilos carton), ranged from Sh18-39.60 per fruit, based on size, export market.