Why I’ll never stop growing palm trees

Friday July 11 2014

Elijah Mutaaru speaking during the interview

Elijah Mutaaru speaking during the interview at his farm in Juja on July 5, 2014. JENNIFER MUIRURI (NAIROBI) STORY ELIZABETH MERAB 

By ELIZABETH MERAB
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Juja’s Namba 4 area is warm and humid, with temperatures often rising to 27 degrees Celsius.

Coming from Nairobi, a mere 30 kilometres away, which is currently particularly cold, this is the weather which hit us when we visited Elijah Mutaaru, an ornamental tree farmer this week.

Like a sprawling demonstration plot, row after row of seedlings in every stage of growth, welcomed us.

Mutaaru kept picking weeds in his seed bed, only occasionally pausing to speak to us.

“People complain about the heat here, but it is what brings my money. Palm seedlings do very well under these conditions,” Mutaaru told us, pointing out that he has never done any other job in his life.

“It all started as a hobby, having been a nature lover since I was a child. The beauty of trees warms my heart. So when I left school in late ‘70s, I knew nothing else to do. I have grown trees to date and I have never regretted.”

But Mutaaru, 56, was not always growing palm trees. “I used to grow the ordinary trees, but as Nairobi and the surrounding areas kept growing in leaps and bounds, demand for ordinary trees diminished.”

He is now cashing in on palm trees, bought for landscaping and beautification of homes and offices.

It is this adaptability, changing with the times, which sustained Mutaaru in the tree business.

And he chose his business site well, locating his Elina Garden on the banks of River Thiririka, where he gets water to grow the trees on his one-acre farm.

“I source seeds from the Coast, Nairobi, Busia and sometimes Kampala, Uganda. I normally go to farmers who have mature palm trees and buy the seeds at Sh2,500 per kilo.”

Among the varieties Mutaaru grows are golden, bottle, Sphothia and Robelenii.

“I mix the soil with cow dung and NPK fertiliser and wait for 14 days before I plant the seeds.” “It is easy to control their growth once they are in the bags before we get buyers,” he adds.

Sells the seedlings

He sells the seedlings for between Sh400 and Sh1,200, with those taking the longest time to mature being the most expensive.

“Sphothia palm, which I get from Nairobi, takes a year to mature while the Robelenii takes up to three years in the nursery.”
He has constructed a 50,000-litre water tank that he refills daily from River Thirika.

A farmer also needs the right pesticides for the seedlings to ensure that the leaves remain green and healthy.

“Ridomil works best for me to prevent rust, a common disease that affects palm trees. But I spray the pesticide only when the trees show signs of the disease. Continuous spraying may make the pests resistant.”

To provide shade for his 20 species of seedlings, Mutaaru has planted castor oil and gravellia trees.

He plants an average of 3,000 seeds per season. Currently, his farm has about 20,000 seedlings. Mutaaru’s effort has provided employment to 10 people who take care of the plants in his five nurseries.

After deducting all expenses, Mutaaru earns up to Sh200,000 in four months, with schools and property developers in upmarket Nairobi, Thika and Juja being his main market.

Kinyua Kamaru, the assistant director in the Ministry of Agriculture, advises that the right dosage of fungicides should be administered to young trees to prevent resistance.

“To venture into commercial seedling farming, one should establish the market and the source of seeds. Otherwise with the ever rising need for trees, this is a business one can’t go wrong with.”