As many farmers in central Kenya put their money in macadamia, coffee, tea and avocados, George Karemu is banking on apples.
He started growing the fruits as a hobby over 40 years ago, but this has blossomed into a thriving enterprise.
Sometime in 1976, Karemu recounts, he got two apple tree seedlings from a friend and planted them. At the time, his interest was just to provide his family with some fruits to eat.
As years went by, he forgot about the trees and concentrated on farming coffee, cabbages, potatoes and peas, but kept increasing the number of apple trees on his farm.
It was not until 2008 when he shifted his interest to apple after earning some Sh60,000 from his orchard that had 50 trees.
During that year, he had harvested 1,200 kilos and sold the fruits to a buyer from Nairobi at Sh50 a kilo.
“It occurred to me that if I could make such money from just 50 trees, what would happen if I concentrated on the tree? I decided to take the apples seriously,” he tells Seeds of Gold on his three-acre farm at Naari, on the foot of Mt Kenya, some five kilometres off the Meru-Nanyuki highway.
Karemu, who resigned from primary school teaching, slowly phased out other crops from his farm, planting some 100 grafted apples. He added 250 more over the years.
His entire farm is currently an apple orchard hosting the trees at various stages of growth.
“I have stopped growing the other crops and specialised on apples. With money from apples, I can buy anything I want,” says the 65-year-old farmer.
He gets seedlings by grafting them from his original four-decade-old trees. Thereafter, he digs two feet deep by three feet wide holes and uses about 10 kilos of manure to plant each seedling.
MATURE IN THREE YEARS
“The spacing from one plant to the other should be eight feet and the rows 10 feet apart,” he says, adding that the apple tree takes between two and three years to mature, depending on how it is grafted.
The varieties he plants are Winter banana (green), Rome beauty and Dorsett golden (red). His favourite is Winter banana because it is resistant to pests and diseases, he says.
Before flowering, he has to prune all the leaves since the flowers sprout from the buds, each producing five or six fruits.
Each branch has at least 10 flowers. Karemu says he works on the farm with his wife, but employs casuals during pruning.
“Once they mature and start fruiting, I support the trees with poles so that they don’t fall down due to the fruits’ weight. Apple trees do not need a lot of water, thus I rely on the rain. But when they are young I water them in the first six months,” he says, noting the crop does well in climates where coffee and tea thrive.
He is self-taught on matters apple farming, since there are few apple farmers to learn from.
“Out of experience, I have learnt that if the tree is not properly taken care of, it can take five years to mature which can lead to frustration,” the farmer offers, adding that the tree should mature in three years.
The only serious pests attacking the fruit, he says, are aphids, which he controls by spraying when the trees are about to flower. But there are also weevils which spoil the fruit if not properly controlled.
But once the fruits mature, they have to stay for at least a month without being sprayed before harvesting to avoid contamination.
“The beauty of apples is that they are easy to maintain and you don’t spend a lot of money on them. Birds eat the apples but again, they cannot finish the fruits because they have their share,” he says with a smile.
While each tree is supposed to produce at least 40 kilos per year if well taken care of, he harvests 30 kilos from an average of 200 mature trees. The farmer sells his fruits at Sh150 a kilo.
He supplies about 80 kilos of apples every week to 10 traders who sell them in Tharaka-Nithi, Isiolo and at Gakoromone, the largest open-air market in Meru.
Karemu is one of the few farmers who earn from The International Small Group and Tree Planting Programme (TIST) by trading in carbon credits.
He gets some Sh3,000 annually, which he says places him at par with other environmentally conscious people who contribute to reduction of carbon emissions globally.
John Kiogora, an extension officer with Elgon Kenya Ltd, says one can improve his apple trees by coming up with a management schedule.
“Apples require a lot of attention, thus one must draw a monthly or quarterly programme on how to apply manure and other inputs,” he says, adding the few local growers compete with apple imports from South Africa.
Apples require soils that are rich in potassium for the fruit’s sweetness, offers Kiogora, adding that they also need some heat but not too much of it, conditions that are appropriate in Karemu’s area.