The towering trees in Makandune village near the Mututa swamp in Central Imenti, Meru County, form a huge canopy that is visible from far.
Anyone driving along the road marvels at the tall trees, the only one of its kind in the region.
The trees are part of a vast coconut plantation that sits on 10 acres.
The farm belongs to Samson M’Rinkanya (now deceased), who planted the 500 coconut trees of the East African Tall varieties in 1973.
The coconut farm is now under the keen watch of Mwambo Gambo, who hails from Mombasa, and is employed as the caretaker.
“Mzee M’Rinkanya was a businessman dealing in mnazi drink in Mombasa and he decided to try out growing coconut in his native home in Meru. They did well,” he says.
Makandune is warm and humid, with temperatures often rising to 28 degrees Celsius, creating the perfect ecological conditions for coconut farming.
“Coconuts are grown directly by planting the seeds in the field or first raising the seedlings in a nursery before transplanting,” says Gambo.
On Mzee M’Rinkinya’s farm, both methods were used to test the waters. Gambo dug planting holes to a depth of three feet and planted the seedlings.
VARIETIES OF COCONUT
The seed nuts of the East African Tall variety germinate in about 60 days after sowing.
“We mixed the top loam soil with compost manure and partly filled planting holes of about 0.9m depth with good spacing between plants. Too much water causes the seedlings to rot,” Gambo explains.
Each of the 500 trees on the farm produces between 75 and 100 fruits.
“There are two varieties of coconut, the East African Tall and the dwarf varieties. The former starts to bear fruits at 5-7 years for up to 80 years while the dwarf variety produces fruits at 3-4 years for up to 40 years. Our coconuts are harvested after every three months and are sold locally at Sh10 each.”
They also tap palm wine from the flower part of the coconut inflorescence. The juice is then stored at room temperature and automatically ferments, because of its high sugar content, to become alcohol.
To harvest, one has to climb up a tree to cut the coconut fruits.
Locals, however, are yet to fully embrace coconut eating the reason why prices are low, though they enjoy the wine Gambo makes.
“A majority love the mnazi wine. The crop has multiple uses. Apart from the edible flesh and the juice in the fruit, its leaves are woven to make roofs for houses, the mid ribs of leaves makes brooms and fibres from the husks are woven to make ropes and carpets while the spathes are used as seats,” Gambo says, noting they are only farming the coconuts in honour of Mzee M’Rinkinya since there is little market for the produce.
The coconuts are intercropped with arrowroots to provide additional income.
“We also get to utilise the spaces between the trees to maximise on production. It is also important to keep weeding around the base of the trees for better yields at all times,” he explains.
COCONUT VALUE ADDITION
Some of his neighbours like Jane Muthaura and Kinoti Marete have taken up coconut farming.
Marete says if farmers can be guaranteed a ready market, they would farm coconuts on a large-scale, especially in Meru.
“This is the only large farm we have in this area and it can be used as a training centre for interested farmers. We can have a huge coconut production if we are trained on pest management, and other husbandry practices,” Marete says.
Innocent Masira, a marketer at the Nuts and Oil Crops Directorate, says coconut farming is not doing well in Meru because of the crop’s traditional uses, which are associated with the coastal people.
“The Meru people do not have many uses for coconut products. The Nuts and Oil Crops Directorate is mainly a regulator and cannot engage in business. It ensures players in the sector observe industry standards,” he says, noting the directorate further helps in sensitising farmers on exploring other uses of the product through value addition.
He points out that one can make coconut syrup, bottled palm wine and coconut oil, among other products from the crop for higher returns.
“At the farm level, the crop is more viable if intercropped with short season crops. This is possible at the correct spacing of 9m by 9m. Examples of the crops for intercropping include cow peas, beans, maize and even bananas to maximise yield per unit area,” says Masira.
CLIMATIC CONDITIONS AND VIABILITY
The commercial viability of the crop, according to him, varies from one region to another, and they classify production zones from low to medium to high potential areas.
“In fact the coconut tree is not exotic in its climatic requirements and is highly adaptable to a variety of environments.
It grows under varying climatic and soil conditions. Overall, areas outside the Coast with potential for the crop include western Kenya regions of Butere, Mumias, Bungoma, Kakamega, Kisumu, Suba and Vihiga. In Eastern, areas around Meru and Tharaka Nithi have also produced the crop,” adds Masira.
The Head of Agriculture Department at Meru University of Science and Technology, Dr Peter Masinde, says coconut farming could be more viable in other parts of the country apart from the Coast if farmers embrace value addition.
“Although there is no major difference in coconuts grown differently, we need to do more research to establish if the Meru coconut has different fat content from the coastal fruits,” Dr Masinde says.
growing the coconut
- Coconuts require soils with good drainage and aeration. One must not plant on water-logged soils. While planting seedlings in the nursery, extreme caution should be taken. The nursery area should have well-drained soils and the bed should be of 1-1.5 metres width.
- Seed nuts should be examined and those without nut water and rotten kernels discarded. They should then be planted in beds, at a spacing of 30x30 cm horizontally in deep trenches with 20-25 cm depth.