A walk into the farm in Laikipia County reminds one of a game park or one of those sandy beaches at the Coast. Inside the farm named Eden Villa, you will find several foreign and local tourists relaxing under a canopy of fruit trees. A set of well-made wooden chairs are strategically placed below fruit trees planted in straight rows.
And to complete a true picnic atmosphere on the farm, there are simple wooden tables that are permanently erected under the fruit trees and on these tables are knives of various shapes and trays neatly arranged.
Few metres from the tables are wooden beds, similar to those found in tourist hotels that border the beaches, for visitors to relax and unwind after eating their choice from the more than 20 varieties of fruits in the farm.
The varieties include loquats, pineapples, avocados, pawpaws, lemons, white sapote, cherimoya, tangerine, pomegranate, watermelons, passion fruits, tree tomatoes, bananas, apples, oranges and grapes.
Then there is a children’s corner where pupils sit and draw various shapes of fruits they have eaten under the guidance of an artist.
Apart from traders who flock Eden Villa to buy fruits, the farm is also a learning centre for farmers, researchers and secondary school students eager to learn the basics of fruit farming such as nursery management, watering of the young fruits and grafting.
After touring the farm, visitors need not to be in a hurry to leave as there are three well-furnished traditional huts that host 10-15 people where they could stay overnight as they enjoy the music from the various birds and insects, which call this farm home.
Eden Villa, a 7.5-acre farm situated in the remote and little known dusty village of Dimcom in Sipili, Laikipia County, is the property of Charles Maina, a teacher who is expanding the bounds of agriculture and tourism as we have known it.
Maina’s efforts are his contribution to agritourism, which is fast-gaining ground in the developed world, but is virtually unexplored in Africa.
“Agritourism kills two birds using one stone, so to speak. With fortunes from traditional tourism dwindling, Kenyans need to think outside the box and offer visitors more reasons to visit. Few people can resist the beauty and serenity of a beautiful farm,” a beaming Maina tells us as we sit under the cool shades.
“It is even harder to resist the allure of mouth-watering fresh fruits under a cool shade on a sunny day,” he continues.
Needless to say, the practice, which he also calls “Green Tourism’ adds value to agriculture as a farmer gets more than when he merely sells fruits.
He also gets to conserve the environment in a most beautiful and pleasant manner.
“This is a new way of doing agribusiness and adding value to fruit farming. Not all potential tourists in Europe and America are interested in coming to see wildlife and sample our beaches. Hundreds of others are interested in eating fresh fruits and enjoying Mother Nature,” says Maina, a teacher of Christian Religious Education at the nearby Lariak Secondary School.
He spent Sh400,000 to buy the land in early 2000, then about Sh40,000 went in planting the fruits and Sh50,000 recently to construct the benches and chairs.
Maina has big dreams. “I want to pioneer a fruit farm path that has not been walked before in Kenya through innovation, quality and efficiency just like the way Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have done.”
Visitors to his farm pay an entrance fee of Sh1,000 and eat as much as they want and enjoy the ambience of the environment.
Secondary school students, however, pay Sh100 each while their primary counterparts Sh50.
“Since I started fruit farming about 10 years ago, I have done my mathematics and realised one individual cannot eat fruits worth more than Sh300 in a day. This, thus, leaves me with Sh700 as gross profit before paying workers and maintaining the facility,” says the 44-year-old farmer, who has been receiving at least 100 visitors in a month.
With the innovation, he is targeting 1,000 visitors from within and outside the country. Perhaps the dream is too grand, but he insists it is achievable.
Since he started the “Green Tourism” early this year, about 200 foreign visitors have toured his farm.
His guest book shows they come from Japan, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States of America, France, Australia, India and South Africa.
So how did he learn of this innovative way of making money from fruit farming?
“It all started when I was sponsored by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to attend a course called Implementation and Promotion of Agribusiness in Tokyo in 2011.” The course is under the JICA programme One Village, One Product (OVOP).
“I want Kenyans and foreigners to come here for picnics and enjoy themselves. I also want to empower my community and Kenyans at large to learn the latest fruit farming techniques,” says Maina who is, however, bogged down by lack of water, Sipili being semi-arid.
He has now embarked on sinking a borehole that will enable him to expand his orchard and employ more people to handle the expected surge in the number of visitors.
“Presently, I have one permanent worker and several casual employees, but my ultimate goal is to employ at least 20 permanent workers and this is possible if I drill a borehole,” he says.
JICA coordinator Hiromi Furukawa says the Japanese government is impressed that Maina has put to good use the training he received.
“Every year we sponsor two or three Kenyans to Japan to attend an agribusiness course but not many have translated the knowledge gained in Japan the way Maina has done and I commend him for that,” Mrs Furukawa says.
Sabastian Odanga, a consultant in Agriculture and Rural Development with JICA Kenya office, describes Maina’s new initiative as “climate smart agriculture.”
“This innovation of bringing local and international visitors to the farms will change the way people view agriculture and the mentality of many youth on the latest land use,” Odanga says.
Sarah Gachie, a representative of US Peace Corps, says if more people embrace ‘Green Tourism’, the income and health of locals in the rural areas will improve.
“Agritourism is the way to go. As a country we have concentrated too much on wildlife yet we have a rich resource in fruit farming that can boost income from tourism and farming at the same time.”
Agritourism is the new frontier for discerning farmers and countries that want to make money from agribusiness, according to Prof Joshua Ogendo of Egerton University.
He notes that this kind of tourism creates a platform that allows all the interested parties to relate for their own good.
“It promotes technologies that have been proven to be working, which the visiting farmers learn to expand their farm operations and ultimately improve their revenues,” says Prof Ogendo, an expert in crop protection and the Dean, Faculty of Agriculture.
He observes that agritourism is a critical component of any nation that values its farmers because the technology that is developed by researchers is passed to various people.
“Agritourism opens new consumer markets for farmers and the country, which were hitherto not available. This is the best way for farmers to earn more income without deviating from their core business.”
In Kenya, while farm visits have become common, Prof Ogendo says agritourism is more than just visiting the farm.
“People need to relax and enjoy themselves as they learn.”
Countries such as India, Israel and Britain are earning millions in foreign exchange as they have taken agritourism seriously by investing in modern technology.
“At Egerton University, for example, we have international students being hosted here and besides learning new technologies, they also become our ambassadors when they go back to their motherlands,” says Prof Ogendo.
“The government needs to do a lot more to promote agritourism by committing more resources in its national budget to the development of agricultural technologies that people can come and learn at a fee,” he adds.
According to the expert, agritourism should be promoted as it increases awareness of agricultural products and the natural environment is protected.
Besides, the rural economies where such farms are located improve as unemployed youths get jobs that lead to more income generation.