Joseph Mailu sifts through rows of mango trees with a long pole from which a small ‘basket’ is hanging as he searches for mature fruits to pluck.
He stops at one of the trees, looks at the green succulent fruits keenly before he uses the pole to pluck them.
The fruits drop in the basket made of a red net fastened on the pole.
Besides being a mango farmer in his Nziu village in Makueni, the 31-year-old is a professional picker of the fruit relied upon by tens of farmers in the county.
Harvesting mangoes, according to him, is an art that calls for precision and expertise especially when the fruits are for export or high-end market.
“Quality of fruits plummet due to poor handling during harvest and post-harvest, but if you do it well, the losses are minimised,” he says.
The harvesting process begins by identifying mature mangoes, but the most important thing is having an eye for quality fruits.
Just by looking at a mango on the tree, Mailu is able to tell whether the fruit has been attacked by flies on or not.
“When the fruit is maturing, the red part disappears and it becomes greenish, then a depression begins to form on the upper side. Also the tip (at the bottom of the fruit) becomes blunt or roundish. These are the things I look out for before plucking the fruit,” says Mailu, who got the training from TechnoServe.
In niche markets, like those offered by fruit processors, quality matters. Farmers in mango producing areas of Makueni and Machakos understand this, therefore, hire professional pickers like Mailu.
REDUCE FARMERS' LOSSES
“Many farmers in this area have contracts with fruit exporting companies, so they hire us. We are three, during pick seasons we are very busy,” says Mailu, who is also contracted by buying companies to ensure farmers adhere to good practices during harvesting.
Emergence of the professional pickers, and cool storage facilities have reduced losses for farmers.
Mailu, together with three colleagues, says in a day they harvest up to a tonne of the fruits.
During plucking, he explains that one needs to have a canvas material laid under the mango tree for collecting picked fruits.
“Mangoes should not be put on the ground because soil has bacteria which attack the fruit interfering with its shelf-life and quality. The fruit should be put on the material with its sap-producing-tip pointing downwards so that the liquid doesn’t soil the fruit.”
But even when the fruits don’t have sap, they are not just bundled into crates.
“A sheet of paper is laid inside the crate, then one should arrange the mangoes in rows, and cover with another sheet of paper until the crate is full.”
Thereafter, the mangoes are usually kept in a cold storage facility awaiting transportation.
The solar-powered cold storage facility in Nziu village can hold up to 3.5 tonnes of the fruits.
The facility constructed by Rockefeller Foundation and Technoserve, can drop temperatures from 35 degrees Celcius to a low of 17 thus slowing the ripening of the mangoes.
For the better
Experts note government should come up with policies that encourage lending among agri-processors and linking farmers with technologies.
It should also lower taxes on technologies that are of benefit to smallholders.