As you approach Naivasha town from Nakuru, a canopy of eucalyptus trees line both sides of the busy highway, forming a cool shade that has defied the scorching sun that welcomes you to this dusty town.
And just at the end of the canopy, the Seeds of Gold team is welcomed by a sign post that leads us to a green metal gate that is reinforced with an electric fence as the guard ushers us into the expansive farm.
After a two-minute drive, we stop as our host Wikus Venter dressed in a beige shirt, a short, a marching cap and brown Safari boots ushers us into a vineyard full of grape fruits in neat rows.
“Welcome to Morendat Farm vineyard situated in the heart of Africa’s Great Rift Valley overlooking the scenic Mt Longonot,” says Venter as he stretches his left hand past a wire mesh that rings the fruits and picks a bunch of ripe grapes to taste.
Venter, a South African national and a horticulturist, is the general manager of the 2,500-hectare farm that brews wine on Kenyan soil.
According to Venter, the sugar levels must be between 23 and 25 per cent for the grapes to produce the sweet commercial wine produced at their Rift Valley winery.
“What helps us produce quality wine is that we grow our fruits near the equator,” he adds.
To get the required sugar levels, Venter, who has been the farm manager for the last two years, says that the water consumption must be controlled.
“We are situated near the equator and since Kenya has no winter season which is used as dormancy stage for the grapes to rest and grow, then water must strictly be controlled to avoid an overgrowth of grapes,” explains Venter.
“Why should Kenya be proud of stocking wine brands from other countries while it enjoys volcanic soils, cool nights and warm days which combine to ensure slow maturation of grapes that allow us to produce fulsome wines of a unique character?” poses the 41-year-old.
Morendat Farm, which is part of the Kenya Nut Company, is the producer of the Leleshwa brand wines.
The farm produces 150,000 bottles of wine annually but has plans to do a million by the end of next year, according to Venter.
On the farm, they use machines to remove all the weeds and when planting the seedlings, “we always make sure the rows run from North to South to avoid the plants having direct contact with the sun.”
He says the seedling holes must be half a metre deep and the roots must sharply point to the centre of the hole to make sure they grow upright. The distance from one seedling to another must be 1.5m while the rows should be 2.7m apart.
They are then watered using a computerised drip irrigation system that makes sure each plant consumes at least two litres of water per hour twice a week.
Urea is also applied using the drip irrigation system. This is supplemented with compost manure from the more than 3,000 beef bulls for which Morendat Farm is also famed for. After watering, the ground around the grafted seedlings is covered with a polythene paper to ensure there is little evaporation and to suppress weeds.
Besides South Africa, the farm also imports seedlings from Israel.
After the third month, the plants are ringed with a wire mesh to keep off birds which can decimate acres if not checked.
“We normally plant between June and July and they are ready for harvest after three years. We like harvesting at the end of January or early February because that is the warmest season of the year which is crucial for better sugar levels.”
The vines, once planted, can stay in the farm for up to 30 years before they are uprooted and fresh seedlings are planted.
“These current vines we’re harvesting were planted in 1995 and in the next 10 years, we shall replace them with fresh vines as they will have reached their optimum.”
One hectare under grapes has between 2,000 and 3,000 vines and a good harvest yields between 10 to 15 tonnes of grapes.
Currently, the farm has 12 hectares of mature grapes and another 12 has young vines which are supposed to produce fruits in the next two years.
“Our target is to plant another 36 hectares to cope with the increasing demand of our wines in the shops and hotels,” says Venter, who trained as a horticulturist at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
“We have invested in irrigation with equipment imported from South Africa because water is the heart of any grape farming,” adds Venter, whose day starts at 5am until 8 or 9pm.
The farm also has a reservoir which is used as a backup whenever there is a sign of water levels going down. “I have a soft spot for horticulture as I come from a farming family. My parents, brothers, uncles are all farmers,” says the father of two boys and two girls, who has been farming for the last 25 years.
Although he is reluctant to disclose how much the farm is making, he was quick to point out that there is good money in grape farming.
However, one of the major challenges is the downy mildew disease and weevils which can be devastating if not managed.
Dr Lusike Wasilwa, the Assistant Director in-charge of Horticulture and Industrial crops at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), says a number of diseases which attack the grapes can be contained by keeping the field clean.
“Don’t let the leaves and uprooted weeds lie idle on the farm as they are alternative hosts for pests.”
Grapes seedlings are available at Kalro Horticulture Research Centre in Thika, Kiambu County.
According to Dr Wasilwa, the best soils for grapes are loam and volcanic but clay soil is also be appropriate so long as it has enough manure. “The crops should be grown in areas with soils that do not retain a lot of water. One should also ensure they grow the correct variety.”
She added that the berries flourish in temperatures ranging from 0 degrees Celsius up to 40 degrees but are best harvested during hot season.