About 12 kilometres southwest of Bomet town is Olbutyo, a little known shopping centre whose only fame is producing musicians.
The fame in music, however, will soon be shared with a priest’s experiment with passion fruits.
A few hundred metres from the shopping centre is Segemik Catholic Church, which shares a compound with Olbutyo primary and secondary schools.
The grass lining the dirt road is coarse brown and the few acacia trees have shed their spiny leaves, indicating the dry season.
However, this monotonous dryness changes suddenly when one approaches the church.
One is met with the lush of passion fruit plants. This is Fr Ambrose Kimutai’s project.
The farm is divided in two sections, one with older fruits that was started last year and the second section established in June 2018. Each has 350 plants.
“The project was a trial. Bomet County and the wider region have suffered greatly as a result of the Maize Lethal Necrotic Disease. The problem hit residents hard and discouraged the production of maize,” Fr Kimutai says.
We realised that a new source of income besides dairy farming should be explored.”
The priest says he and his group considered a number of options but settled on passion fruits "because the returns are within a year of establishment".
“We got the first fruit six months after planting. The harvest was negligible but the production grew tremendously in eight to 10 months,” he says.
The purple passion fruit does well in mid to high altitude regions of between 1200 to 1800 metres above sea level.
It can still thrive even at 2000 metres
The fruit should ideally be farmed on soils that are fertile and not prone to water logging.
Passion fruit also does well in places with rainfall distributed properly through out the year.
SECOND BATCH IS PROMISING
Fr Kimutai defied these requirements by growing the crop in a place whose long rains are in April and a short rainy season from October to December.
Olbutyo has black cotton soil that cakes during the dry periods and gets clogged when the rains strike.
When the priest and his group started the project, they dug holes to a depth of approximately 2 feet as is usually done in the highlands where the fruit is grown.
However, the holes collected water, stunting the plants.
“We had to intervene by digging trenches across the farm. We also topped up the basins around the plants with manure. This stopped water from collecting around the roots and nourished the plants,” the priests adds.
Though about 50 seedlings died, the priest had learnt a vital lesson.
When he planted the second batch of 350 seedlings, he did not dig very deep holes. He also created furrows at the base of the plants.
And this second batch is promising.
Fr Kimutai’s orchard gets a constant supply of manure from the cows that belong to the church.
The animals graze in the church compound but sleep in one shed.
The concrete floor of the shed is cleaned every morning and the dung flows into a collecting tank that is designed like a biogas digester.
The heavy waste sinks while the lighter slurry flows into a lower tank. The water mixed with slurry is what Fr Kimutai and his group use to water the fruits everyday.
The heavier manure is allowed to dry before being used at the farm.
Despite challenges, the priest hints that he once harvested 280 kilogrammes of passion fruits a week.
DOES WELL IN WELL-DRAINED SOILS
At some point, the yield oscillated around 200 kilos before the trees were pruned to allow regeneration of the branches.
Every kilogramme sold for between Sh80 and Sh90, earning the church a tidy sum.
“We expect to get more than 600 kilogrammes of fruits a week from the beginning of 2019,” Fr Kimutai says.
To produce fruits all year round, he intends to set up a drip irrigation system at the farm.
Fr Kimutai says he has learnt how to identify diseases and pests that ravage the plant.
“The company that buys our fruits has designated an agronomist who regularly visits the farm to advise us,” the priest adds.
A number of church members are excited about the venture and some have began growing passion. However, they are yet to go commercial due to the challenge of getting water, especially during the dry season.
According to Mr James Saina, an agronomist at Kaimosi Agricultural Training Centre, passion fruit farming is a lucrative venture that should be embraced by families with small pieces of land.
He, however, advises that farmers should to get grafted seedlings from reputed nurseries.
Mr Saina says that the crop does well in well-drained soils but drainage is a must if passion fruit trees are grown in clay soil.
He adds that the plant requires enough manure to continuously produce fruits for more than three months every season.
"Managed properly, a tree will continue yielding fruit for up to five years," Mr Saina says.