On a farm located just 400 metres from Meru Teaching and Referral Hospital, John Mutwiri is busy at work, tending to strawberries that he says have proved to be a viable alternative crop for him.
Mr Mutwiri, a primary school dropout, has despite his education level and the frustrations that followed, managed to make a decent living for himself through the fruits in an area better known for crops like tea, coffee and bananas.
The 32-year-old says he choose to venture into strawberry farming after learning about their high productivity, the low input costs and, more importantly, the good market prices.
Initially, with a capital investment of Sh10,000, he bought splits which he planted on an eighth of an acre. This was a year ago. Today, he grows his plants on a one-acre piece of land he owns in Kooje Village in Imenti North.
And this is his advice to farmers who want to venture into the business.
To begin with, a strawberry farmer should study his market avenues. Currently, many retail chains, including Nakumatt Supermarkets purchase the sweet fruits from farmers across the country.
Mr Mutwiri’s main client is a yoghurt-making company in the region while his smaller customers include juice makers and vendors who sell farm produce at Meru town’s main market.
Another thing to note, he says, is that the crops mature rather quickly and to keep yields from dropping, one has to continuously replace old plants.
“Strawberry plants can last for about four years on the farm. However when they are more than a year or two old, their yields starts to decline. It is important to replace the plants every year to maintain quality,” he said.
It is also important to only water the roots and not its leaves. Moisture left over on the leaves encourages growth of fungus and other diseases which can be detrimental to the crop.
Many traders, he adds, prefer strawberry which are grown in the open field and not in a greenhouse.
It is argued that the fruits grown in the open are more productive and have a better taste that those grown in the highly controlled environment of a greenhouse.
Strawberry plants are ready to harvest just three months after planting.
“Strawberries are very perishable. If you do not have someone to be checking on them after flowering, you might find that most of the fruits were rotting on the farm,” said Mr Mutwiri.
“To maintain the crop’s good quality, they are also harvested once every day”
They are harvested by hand, with grading and packing done in the field before the produce is transported to the market. The fruits are graded on the basis of their weights, size and colour.
Every daily harvest of 30 kilogrammes of strawberries earns Mr Mutwiri approximately Sh12,000, a tidy amount, which the farmer says he is saving up to start a dairy farm.
Diversification is another good strategy since the plants’ extremely delicate nature can be the source of as much pain as the good they bring. That is why he also grows passion fruits.
Lastly, strawberry farmers should invest in buying varieties that are in demand as well hire agricultural experts to test their farms’ soil.