Hills, hills and hills everywhere you look. Some small, some big, and they all join to form a breathtaking landscape that is Nyambene in Meru County.
When you visit the area, you must be prepared to traverse the hills.
That saps plenty of energy, but Seeds of Gold team was ready for the exercise as we tracked Fr Andrew Mbiko, a Catholic priest who manages a vineyard owned by the Meru Diocese.
After climbing and descending several hills, we met Fr Mbiko at Liliamba Experimental Farm examining grapes used for making wine.
With him were three farmers, who Fr Mbiko was teaching how to take care of the crops.
“They come here for lessons. Most people in Meru grow Miraa, but a good number are now planting grapes because we give them market,” said Fr Mbiko.
On the 20-acre vineyard in Liliamba village, Igembe Central Constituency, Fr Mbiko grows Camel of the Desert Grapes, which thrive well in semi-arid areas.
To grow grapes, explained Fr Mbiko, one plants cuttings in a three by three feet hole, in which soil has been mixed with manure.
One then erects wooden posts and puts a wire on them to support the creeping crops.
Grapes are harvested twice a year, in April/ May and November/December seasons.
They were introduced in Ruiri and Liliamba in Meru County by Consolata Missionaries in 1976.
According to Fr Mbiko, the missionaries imported the crops from Tanzania, where they were being grown by the Passionist Fathers.
A brother of the Consolata Missionaries then grafted them with others they had brought from Piemonte in Northern Italy to end up with the ones they currently grow.
Fr Mbiko said the church has specialised in the Camel of the Desert Grapes variety since they thrive in dry areas.
“A camel normally takes long before it gets thirsty. This crop takes long before it shows signs of withering. Just a little rain is enough since the roots go deep.”
They have, however, drilled a borehole to maximise yields and ensure the crop is in good condition throughout the year.
Growing grapes is quite challenging as the crop is labour-intensive and requires constant monitoring, especially when the grapes are ripening.
“It requires removing suckers, weeding and ensuring the grapes are not eaten by the birds.”
The church’s farm acts as a demonstration centre for farmers.
Already, 200 farmers in the larger Igembe area have embraced the crop which Fr Mbiko said gives better returns than the dominant miraa.
Farmers earn at least Sh100,000 from the crop on an acre of land in a season. A single well-tended plant can yield between 200 and 300kg of grapes.
Sh85 per kilo
Harrison Mung’athia, a farmer who grows and sells grapes to the church, intercrops them with beans and maize.
“Last year I lost my maize and beans because of poor rains but I am lucky I had grown grapes, which earned me good income.”
The church usually buys the grapes from farmers at Sh85 per kilo.
“The advantage with grapes is that you can plan for them. Unlike the other crops which go to waste in case of glut, when produced in large quantities, grapes can be eaten as fruits or used to make wine,” said Fr Mbiko.
His hope is to make grapes the main cash crop of the region.
“Nyambene is very dry. Last season, those who planted maize didn’t harvest anything, but those who grew grapes got good income. We want farmers to embrace grapes, then they can buy maize from elsewhere,” said Fr Mbiko, who has been managing the farm for about two decades.
However, growing the crop comes with various challenges. “Birds are our biggest enemy. We have employed 10 people who sit in watchtowers to chase them from the farm lest we end up not harvesting anything,” said Fr Mbiko.
The church operates a manual wine factory in Mukululu village, which has been in existence for the last 30 years.
It is in this factory, which employs six that the diocese makes Sauvignon (white table wine), red wine, sherry and wine used during Mass from the grapes.
The winery produces 2,000 litres per season. “We use manual extraction. Our main procedures are wine press and filtering. We crush the grapes separately and put them in the container and purify. We would like to expand to ensure we support our farmers.”
The wine is sold at the Meru Diocese bookshop and at the factories to churches, Catholic and Anglican, and hotels at Sh400 for 750ml bottle of red wine and Sh550 for the same quantity of sherry.
The products are called Barbera Meru (red wine), White table wine (Sauvignon), Mass wine and Mukululu Sherry.
However, since they do not get enough grapes, the wine is usually sold before it reaches six months.
“Hotels sell our wine at more than Sh1,000. It is a quality product but we usually sell it at six months due to high demand. The longer it stays in the container, the better it would be. If more people grow grapes, we would produce high-quality wine. We are telling farmers to embrace grapes as an agri-business venture. The market is huge,” said Fr Mbiko, adding the products are certified by Kenya Bureau of Standards
-Seeds of Gold