Nandi County is scenic with its many tea estates and the lush green rolling hills.
Our destination is Lessos as we drive on the county’s meandering roads in search of a group of farmers growing passion fruits, a crop that is slowly turning to be an important cash crop in the area.
Irene Nyolei, a member of Kosyin Horticulture Youth Group, is on her quarter-acre farm in Kapnyemis village when we arrive.
The farmer has 140 purple variety fruits planted at a depth of 20cm and spaced at rows of 3m.
“Regular pruning improves the production of passion fruits and keeps the vines healthy,” says Irene as she walks us in the farm, noting that she harvests 100kg of passion fruits every week.
Each member of the group grows the fruit independently with the sizes of the farm ranging from quarter to an acre. They then market the passion fruits collectively.
Most of the group members have intercropped the fruits with onions or vegetables.
“Onions produce a sharp smell that repels pests and rodents such as moles that damage plant roots,” says Irene, adding that onions and passion fruits do not share diseases.
The group that started in 2009 comprises of 23 farmers, 14 men and nine women.
Members parted with Sh2,000 each which they used to purchase 70 seedlings, chemicals and fertiliser after being trained by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Heart breaking viral attack
However, months after planting the seedlings in 2010, all the group members suffered a major setback after the woodiness viral disease destroyed their crops.
“The losses were so discouraging that we took a break from passion fruit farming,” says Philip Bett, the group’s patron.
They returned to the crop in 2012 with the support of TechnoServe, an agricultural NGO.
The NGO supplied each farmer with at least 70 purple grafted seedlings at Sh20 each, but they were only to pay a down payment of Sh5 for each.
They planted the seedlings in August 2012 but once again, as fate would have it, the disease struck.
“Woodiness disease is characterised by the crop’s leaves turning yellowish. My first harvest was in June 2013, and I only got 15kg because of the disease,” says Bett.
Robert Musyoki, the chief research officer at Simlaw Seeds Company, says woodiness is a stubborn viral infection that occurs in cooler areas or seasons, with symptoms including one getting malformed fruits with hard rind producing no pulp.
“Woodiness disease is spread by sap sacking insects such as aphids and mites. Sometimes it is transmitted through vegetative propagation practices such as grafting infected scions and use of contaminated tools,” says Musyoki.
How to mitigate the disease
He advises farmers to disinfect tools and hands, and immediately remove and destroy affected passion fruit vines.
According to the group members, sharing of tools and failing to destroy infested vines is one of the things that spread the disease on their farms.
The group’s harvest varies from one farm to another. Some members collect as much as 200kg every Monday while others 10kg.
The farmers have ready market for passion fruits in Nairobi and Uganda on contract basis.
“After harvesting, we pack them into bags and transport to a collection centre where the produce is weighed and loaded into a vehicle for transportation. We supply two to three tonnes a week, with a kilo going for Sh90,” says Daniel Kemboi, the group’s treasurer.
“Passion fruit production depends on the weather, currently we are experiencing cold temperatures, therefore, the yield is low. When the weather is warm, yields rise,” says Kemboi, adding they grow seedlings in a 10m by 5m greenhouse, which they received as a grant from the Ministry of the Agriculture.
For a kilo of passion fruit sold, the group deducts Sh5 that goes to their account, from where members can easily access loans.
Birds are also a menace for passion fruit farmers, particularly during flowering stage.