It is a warm Thursday afternoon when Seeds of Gold arrives at Grace Cheptoo’s farm at Ng’oina Road area in Bureti Constituency.
We find the mother of two humming to some music while harvesting passion fruits.
We visited the farm to find the root of her love for passion fruit farming, her story having travelled far and reached us.
Grace, 60, established the fruit farm on her 0.2 acre land on the advice of a friend in March 2010, investing Sh64,000 into the venture
She says that it was without doubt one of the best decisions she ever took as it has earned her good returns through export to Uganda, Guatemala and Belgium.
On a good month, Grace, harvests 480 kilos of passion fruit, making Sh33,600.
“When I started this project, it was meant to give me something to do part time but it has becoming more profitable than any other farming activity I have done including tea and pineapple growing,” she says.
Although she can claim success today, it has not always been a walk in the park. She recalls that when she harvested her first crop in August 2011, she had to hawk it in person and sell the fruits at the local market as she did not have a stable market.
Things turned for the better in March 2012 when a business colleague informed her that there was a huge demand for passion fruits in Uganda and within no time, she was selling her fruit at Sh40 per kilo to an exporter who would transport the produce to Uganda.
As she went about her business, word about the success of her venture spread and several aspiring passion fruit farmers went to her farm for lessons.
As the numbers grew, she registered a company – Cool Breeze Horticulture – through which she has been enlisting the services of experts in the agricultural sector to train individuals willing to join the passion fruit growing and export business. So far, 375 farmers from Kericho and Bomet counties have been trained.
Last year, Grace and her group found a new buyer who has been exporting fruits to Guatemala and Belgium at Sh70 per kilo. The farmers deliver 6,000 kilos every month, making a combined monthly income of Sh420,000.
According to Carole Mutua, a crop expert at Egerton University’s Crops, Horticulture and Soils Department, passion fruit farming can do very well in areas with an altitude of between 1,200m and 1,800m above sea level in the east of the Rift Valley and up to 2,000m above sea level west of the Rift Valley.
“The optimum temperature for purple passion fruit is between 18 and 25 degrees celsius and well distributed rainfall of 900mm to 2,000mm per year is suitable. Excess rainfall causes poor fruit set and encourages diseases,” she said.
According to Ms Mutua, there are six common pests and two common diseases that attack passion fruits and which farmers should be wary of.
The pests include the red spider mites which suck sap from the leaves causing them to dry, mealy bugs which also reside on the leaves, the fruit fly, which lay eggs on the fruits causing the occurrence of brown spots and allow maggots to develop within the fruit.
Others are the stink bugs which pierce the fruits and suck sap out of them lowering their quality by causing them to look sunken, aphids which suck sap from the leaves and transmit the woodiness virus and nematodes which are found in the soil and which cause stunted growth and wilting.
“Depending on the pest involved, there are several ways of dealing with them. They include weeding, use of pesticides, uprooting and destruction of the infected plants or hand picking and killing of the pests.
Farmers can also grow resistant passion fruit varieties,” advises Ms Mutua.
PASSION FRUIT DISEASES
The common diseases are fusarium wilt, which causes discolouring of vascular bundles and could kill the entire plant, and the woodiness virus which causes fruits to be woody and leads to reduced yields and stunted growth.
Fusarium wilt can be controlled through grafting, while the woodiness virus can be handled through weeding, proper disinfection of pruning tools and burning of the affected plants.
Best practices in passion fruit farming can ensure an optimum yield of between 15 and 20 tonnes per hectare.
These include trellising, which is the use of raised wires to support the passion fruit vines. If left unsupported vines will fall to the ground and decompose or make the fruits vulnerable to disease.
Horizontal trellises have cross-pieces at the top of each post with 2-4 wires strung horizontally 60 cm apart along the top of each cross-piece.
Vertical trellises consist of heavy posts without cross-pieces, with two or three wires strung along the row like barbed wire fencing, attached to the posts from the top down at intervals about 30-40cm apart.
Farmers are required to apply 175g of Triple Super Phosphate (TSP) and about 20 kilos of farmyard manure which are well mixed at planting and apply 300g of Calcium Ammonium Nitrate (CAN) per plant per year in two applications of 150g each.
Weeding is important when the plants are first transplanted and efforts should be taken to ensure that the orchard is kept weed-free to prevent a buildup of pests and diseases. Mulching can help prevent weed growth and conserve moisture.
“Passion fruits should be watered immediately after transplanting and during the dry season. Pruning encourages growth of new vines resulting in high yields. Old and dead branches should be removed. Pruning is done after harvesting,” added Ms Mutua.
She noted that passion fruit can be grown from seed, grafting and tissue culture. The seed is germinated after removal of the pulp and drying and germination requires up to four weeks.
ENOUGH PASSION FRUIT MARKET
Production of seedlings in plastic bags is the most frequent method of producing seedlings. Up to three seeds are planted in each bag and then thinned to one after emergence.
Seedlings will require up to four months to reach a suitable transplanting growth stage. After about seven weeks of growth following transplanting, each plant should have up to four healthy lateral stems.
Ms Mutua advises that transplanting should be done at the beginning of the rainy season. Since passion fruit has deep roots, soils should be well tilled and the transplanted seedlings planted along a fence or a wire trellis to provide support.
Once the crop has been established, its vines grow rapidly and the plants should flower after about seven months.
If a farmer decides to plant passion vines, this should be done early in the panting season when there is no danger of a drought. Passion fruit vines are planted two metres apart in rows which are three metres apart.
Potential passion fruit farmers are advised to ensure that they grow seedlings that have been developed from seeds that have been certified by the Kenya Plant Inspectorate Service (Kephis) and the Horticultural Crops Development Authority (HCDA) to get higher yields.
When it is ready for harvesting, the skin of the fruit turns deep purple or yellow.
For sale in the fresh fruit market, the passion fruit is picked when the colour changes are seen while those meant for processing are allowed to drop to the ground and be picked on the second day.
The off-peak season is January to August while the peak season is between August and December. Yields decline gradually over a period of four years.
Grace is convinced there is enough market for passion fruits. “Our current production cannot meet the demand for the fruit in the foreign market.” She also grows passion fruit seedlings which she sells to farmers at Sh30 each.