Dressed in a navy blue overall, Alexander Kituku picks the broad-leafed plant on his seedlings farm and checks if it is attacked by any disease or pests.
The molecular biology graduate of Egerton University’s class of 2014 grows pawpaw seedlings in a 5m by 20m greenhouse on a leased plot at Cabanas in Nairobi.
Kituku, 29, says of the dwarf varieties: “They mature faster and produce big and plenty of fruits, which are easier to pick.”
Soon after graduating, Kituku started the venture as a side hustle as he taught in Kirinyaga County under the board of management, before joining a pharmaceuticals manufacturing company in Athi River.
“But my heart was in farming. I started the agribusiness while working as a teacher and early this year, I moved into full-time farming,’’ says Kituku, who specialises in propagation of various varieties of hybrid pawpaws.
While his major crop is pawpaws, Kituku, who says started with 1,000 seedlings, also farms other fruit seedlings that include pixies.
“I’ve specialised on nursery management so that I can supply farmers with quality and first generation (F1) papaya seedlings. One of the varieties I grow is Solo sunrise, which is small, weighs 300g, matures in a year and one can harvest 200 fruits from each plant,” he says.
The other variety he farms is the Dwarf Calina papaya (red fleshed), whose fruits can weigh more than 1kg and one gets as much as 150 of them from each plant in a season.
According to him, the Dwarf Calina papaya flowers two months after transplanting and fruits are ready for harvest eight months later. “The warmer the place, the faster the growth and maturity,” he adds.
He notes that nursery management is labour- and knowledge-intensive. “Breaking papaya seed dormancy before sowing and regular watering is key. The water must have a neutral pH of between 6-7, or else the seedlings would be stunted.’’
Seedlings must also be protected from direct sunlight, the reason why he uses a greenhouse or shade net.
“It takes about three months to turn the seed into seedlings ready for transplanting. Two to three weeks before they are ready for transplanting, we move them to the open air for hardening. The potting soil has to be very carefully mixed. I mix soil, goat manure, sand and biochar in the ratio of 2:1: ½: ½. Sand ensures easy percolation of water, while biochar helps in retention of the water within the plant pot,’’ Kituku says.
Seedling sales depend on the season, he offers, noting that many people plant their fruit trees at the onset of the rainy season in April and October.
“During this period, I can sell as much as 5,000 seedlings. There are other farmers who use irrigation for growing and are therefore able to plant at any time of the year. Off-season sales can be as high as 500 in a month,” he says, pointing out that each seedling goes for Sh100. He markets his produce countrywide via social media under the brand Papaya Empire.
Kituku notes that a hybrid plant produces fruits for at most four years, but indigenous varieties can stay for up to 10 years.
His main challenges are pests such as mealybugs, red spider mites and diseases like papaya ringspot virus and anthracnose which attack seedlings.
“Farm hygiene and proper feeding of plants is crucial. A healthy plant is a resistant plant against pests and diseases,” says Kituku, who employs two people. The farmer, who says that the venture is profitable, also sells pixie seedlings at Sh250 each.
“If you want to excel in seedlings business, start with a crop you have a passion for, and expand with time. Choose your brand crop wisely.
“In my case, I love to be known for pawpaws. Others go for avocados, or mangoes or bananas. Simply make your choice and be the best,” he says. Kituku adds that the business does not require a large piece of land.
His dream is to see all warm, arid and semi-arid areas growing pawpaws. “I aspire to work with and train fellow youths, so that they can establish their own nurseries, closer to the farmers to create employment and help fight food insecurity and poverty.’’
Ms Ann Macharia, an agronomist, says that to control mealybugs, regular monitoring and scouting should be done, with preventive measures such as using resistant varieties and practising crop rotation.