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We struck gold from strawberry farming

Friday July 03 2020
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Beth Wairimu, who was the Women in Agriculture Award winner in the National Farmers Awards scheme in her farm in Nyandarua County. She grows strawberries, which has turned out to be a lucrative venture. PHOTO | WAIKWA MAINA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By WAIKWA MAINA

Decline in land sizes in Nyandarua County has seen farmers come up with innovative ways of farming to earn a living. 

Some, like Beth Wairimu, a Women in Agriculture Award Winner, are investing in unique storey gardens. Wairimu grows strawberries, which has turned out to be a lucrative venture. 

When the Seeds of Gold team visited her Ol Joro Orok home, we were welcomed by the well-tended gardens at the back of the house, while the main gate opens to an even larger strawberry farm.

She has also planted the crop in plastic containers in spaces not big enough to accommodate the storey gardens. 

The ten-litre containers are also neatly arranged to form a beautiful garden, further maximising on land utility. 

The multimillion-shilling venture, now covering more than ten acres, started with a small land measuring 15 feet by 15 feet seven years ago. 

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But Wairimu and her husband Ken Kinuthia say the biggest joy from the venture is not just the money, but the love, trust and joy it has restored in the family. 

Listening and watching the couple go about their business, one would easily mistake them for a newly wedded couple on honeymoon. 

Kinuthia credits his wife for the project, recalling the hopeless life he lived after the collapse of his timber business. 

“I was used to making a lot of money from the sale of timber. But the business collapsed after the ban on tree harvesting in Kenya. I moved with my wife to Tanzania where we made good business selling timber, but things went wrong; the business collapsed. We had to beg for fare back to Kenya,” Kinuthia says. 

Back home, Kinuthia resorted to drinking while his wife engaged in farming activities; planting cabbages and carrots. 

“I was not interested in farming. I never thought that farming can be that rewarding. I had resigned to the fact that I was a failure, until my wife did the miracle,” he says.

REBUILD HIS LIFE

Kinuthia recalls how his wife woke him up early one morning requesting for a talk.

It ended with her giving him some savings from her farming activities to use to rebuild his life. 

“I declined to take the money and avoided my wife for a whole week, arriving home late and very drunk, but she never gave up. She pressured me every morning,” recalls the jovial farmer.

He finally agreed to take the money but requested his wife to escort him to Nyahururu town, a journey that ended in Equity Bank, where they opened a joint account.

"Soon after depositing the cash, I requested her that we withdraw some cash just enough to buy me a hoe, an axe and a panga. We then went back home where I started clearing the bushes for horticultural farming. And that was the beginning of our journey,” Kinuthia says. 

Before going into strawberry farming, they had a three-acre parcel where they grew cabbages. However, the produce decayed owing to a lack of market. The couple also tried snow peas but were frustrated by the market. 

They were introduced to strawberry farming by a farmer from Kiambu County. He promised to buy the produce from them but later vanished. 

Wairimu was in a group of 200 farmers who attended theory lessons but the trainer failed to come for the practical sessions at her farm a week later. 

The farm is currently harvesting 3, 000 punnets from the three-acre farm, while the other four acres will have matured by August. 

While Wairimu concentrates on farm production and marketing, her husband is in charge of sorting and grading. 

Kinuthia is also in charge of a six-acre farm recently bought and planted with strawberries in Laikipia County, which is currently producing 1, 000 punnets. They sell each punnet at Sh100 wholesale price. 

The couple distributes the produce to supermarkets all over the country. However, that was not the case at the beginning.

They were forced to sell the fruits in open markets in Nakuru, Ol Kalou, Ol Joro Orok and Nyahururu towns. 

On the day we visited the farm, more than 50 workers were busy harvesting, grading and packaging for newly secured Saudi Arabia market. 

OWN INLINE RESEARCH

Parked outside the storey family building was a truck waiting to transport the produce to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, with two other luxury vehicles used by the couple a few metres away. 

On the export market, the couple is selling through middlemen at Sh150 per punnet. They also export to Uganda through a broker. 

However, they are scouting for more international markets. 

At some point, the couple started making strawberry jam but never got a breakthrough and they reverted to selling the fruits raw. 

At the farm, sorting and grading for the domestic and export market is done thoroughly to ensure good quality. 

“We have grade A B, and C. Grade A is the fully ripe fruits, which are sold in the local market. Grade B is semi-ripe, which is for the export market. Grade C is mostly sold to jam processors. But the fruits must be of the best quality,” Wairimu says.

To meet the export market standards, one must use recommended pests and disease control chemicals, which must be applied as guided by agronomists. But Wairimu uses minimal chemicals, using the yellow and blue traps for pests and insects. 

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Beth Wairimu who grows strawberries in her Ol Joro Orok home. Their farm is currently harvesting 3, 000 punnets from three-acres, while their other four acres will be mature by August. PHOTO | WAIKWA MAINA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

She works with agronomists from Elgon Kenya, who have been very supportive throughout their journey, as well as county agricultural officers. Elgon Kenya assigns agronomists to the farm. She also spends a lot of time doing own online research. 

“The most common disease in strawberries is Botrytis cinerea, a fungal disease caused by extreme cold weather. However, we have never encountered a serious challenge; the secret is keeping the plants healthy from planting and ensuring that the soils have enough nutrients with regular irrigation,” Wairimu says. 

The storey gardens are made using tubes, timber, lining paper mulching and depend on drip irrigation system. 

However, they have since learnt that timber is more expensive, and will use metal bars in future gardens. The couple currently spend Sh50, 000 to construct a garden. 

PRODUCTION OF QUALITY FRUITS

The current crop on the garden is three months old and is just flowering. “We do not allow the crop to produce the flowers at an early stage. The plants flower two weeks after planting and they won't produce quality fruits if allowed to flower at that stage. We keep plucking the flowers until the plants are three months old,” Wairimu says. 

Each storey garden is six feet by twenty feet and holds 70 plants and each garden has six planting chambers, meaning the small space accommodates 420 plants. In traditional ways of planting, such space holds about 200 plants. 

When making the garden, one must ensure that the drips are located in a strategic place to irrigate the plants, while planting is done in a zigzag manner. 

“At planting, we mix manure and soils at the ratio of 1:1. The crop requires enough manure; it does not need a lot of chemicals or foliar feed. To maintain the soil fertility, we add more manure at the base of the crop after every three months. We use the Chandler variety,” Wairimu says. 

Spacing at planting is two-and-a-half feet by two-and-a-half feet, she adds. 
The main challenge at the farm was water, but the couple invested about Sh2 million in a borehole, storage tanks and the drip irrigation system. 

“We attribute our success to God's favour and the production of quality fruits. There is stiff competition in the industry but our quality has guaranteed us a ready market, with more buyers seeking to sign a supply contract with us. However, we can’t meet the demand but we are slowly expanding our production,” Wairimu says. 

Nyandarua crops director Daniel Muchiri says strawberries are well suited to Nyandarua’s cold climate. 

“But my advice to farmers wishing to venture into it is to first explore the market. The farmer should also consider water availability as the crop requires regular watering. If one does not have a reliable water source, they should not venture into this project.” 

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At a glance

Production of quality fruits

  1. The main challenge at the farm was water, but the couple invested about Sh2 million in a borehole, storage tanks and the drip irrigation system.
  2. “We attribute our success to God’s favour and the production of quality fruits. There is stiff competition in the industry but our quality has guaranteed us a ready market, with more buyers seeking to sign a supply contract with us. However, we can’t meet the demand but we are slowly expanding our production,” Wairimu says.
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