Hidden treasure in wild berries

Friday April 5 2019

Steven Mwanzia, chief operations officer

Steven Mwanzia, chief operations officer SunBerry Berry Enterprise, explaining how gooseberries are grown, at the organization's farm in Kiambu County. PHOTO| SAMMY WAWERU|NMG 

SAMMY WAWERU
By SAMMY WAWERU
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Gooseberries are regarded as wild fruits. They are believed to grow on their own in bushy areas or in the forest.

They belong to the same family as tomatoes and when fully ripe, their colours range from orange to red, and the fruits have tiny seeds tucked in the flesh.

In Kenya, a majority of people in villages pick the fruits, also known as Cape gooseberries, from forests.

SunBerry Berry Enterprise has, however, turned the fruits into a cash cow, growing the crop on 20 acres in Tigoni, Kiambu.

The fruits not only earn them lucrative income, but have also offered them a unique agribusiness.

“We currently have 20 acres under gooseberries that we are harvesting, and we are preparing another land to sow,” says Steven Mwanzia, the chief operations officer.

Journey into gooseberry farming

Other officials of the farm are Esther and Gerry McCarthy, the chief executive and business adviser respectively, as well as Kevin Billing, a Swede, who is the technical adviser.

Esther is Kenyan and is the wife of Gerry from Ireland who has been living in the country for about 25 years.

Their journey into gooseberry farming began in 2016 after realising the fruit is rarely grown in Kenya. Mwanzia, who is a fruit agronomist, says they began with four acres, with the four partners putting into the project Sh2 million.

“The start wasn’t that smooth bearing in mind that the majority of Kenyans believe the fruits are wild. Penetrating the market was hectic, but we worked hard to convince people of the health benefits of the fruits,” explains, Gerry.

According to Mwanzia, gooseberries are among the easiest fruits to grow. The land should be well-prepared and holes dug to a depth of 1.5ft depth and 1.5ft wide and manure placed inside.

Seedlings are then planted in a spacing of a metre from one plant to the other.

The gooseberries then mature in six months and are harvested for four consecutive months, notes Billing. An acre yields about four tonnes of the fruits.

“One knows the fruits are ready for harvesting when the outer shells start drying, an indication they are fully ripe. Ripe fruits are yellow in colour. The fruits are then picked using special scissors,” explains Mwanzia.

Packaging

Once harvested, the dry outer cover is removed, the fruits are them sorted to remove the shrivelled ones, the diseased or those rotting and the good ones are then packed in punnets ready for sale.

“We sell 100g pack for Sh100 to Carrefour Hypermarket at Two Rivers Mall, Zucchini Greengrocers Ltd, Corner Shops Ltd, Karen Food Stores, Highridge Field Fresh and at Galleria Mall,” says Gerry.

According to Mwanzia, if the crops are organically grown, they not only give good yields, but also have a great taste.

“We do not grow the fruits with inorganic fertilisers or spray them with chemical pesticides to control diseases, pests or weeds. But that aside, gooseberries are little affected by pests or diseases,” says Esther, noting they depend on rains to grow them.

She advises that the crop does not do well when irrigated with salty water.

“It is better to collect water from the rains and use it during the dry season.”

Sourcing of seeds

For beginners, Esther says one does not need to spend a lot.

“With less than quarter acre, one can venture into gooseberry farming and still get some good profit,” she says, adding that one can obtain seeds from Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation.

SunBerry Berry Enterprise has employed more than 30 youths. Besides sale of raw berries, they also do value addition, extracting berry oil, wine, jam, soft drinks and dry some fruits.

James Kimemia, an agricultural officer in Kiambu, says fruits grown in cold places such as Limuru may be attacked by blight, fusarium wilt and powdery mildew.
“We urge farmers to test acidity and alkalinity of their soils. If need be, they should be treated to avoid challenges. They should seek guidelines from experts against pests and diseases,” he says. Pests that invade fruits, such as cutworms, spider mites, white fly and caterpillars are also seen in gooseberries. Birds are also a major challenge.
The farm is currently working with Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) to come up with quality seedlings to sell to farmers.