There is a lovely road that runs from the Kunste junction off the Nakuru-Nairobi highway up the hills overlooking the Subukia valley. The rolling hills carpeted by lush green crops, however, soon give way to a dry, plain sea of shrubs.
Welcome to the Laikipia Plateau, one of the drier parts of the country where the surest way of earning a living is by rearing the hardy zebu cattle and the black headed Maasai sheep. Here, you also meet an occasional crop of stunted and shrivelling maize.
Sixty kilometres from Nyahururu town, however, as you delve deeper into the Sipili plains, a waft of fresh air hits your nostrils as you come face-to-face with a vast orchard.
This is the home of Charles Maina, a 43-year-old teacher whose expansive orchard has caused his 21-variety farm to be christened the “Garden of Eden”, an allusion to the Biblical paradise.
The fruits in his garden include varieties of avocado, passion fruits, paw paws, tomatoes, mangoes, apples, guavas, grapes, pineapples, bananas, macadamia, oranges, and lemons.
But it has not always been rosy for the father of three.
“The turning point of my life came when I planted close to eight acres of maize only to get Sh100,000 after waiting for nearly a year and having spent a fortune on inputs and land preparation. However, when I planted passion fruits on less than a quarter acre, I made Sh70,000 in six months. And this from a Sh30,000 investment,” he tells Seeds of Gold.
This is when he abandoned maize and never looked back. “If I was to sell this farm now, with all the trees and other structures, I will demand at least Sh20 million,” he says.
CANNOT GO WRONG
His journey to the top began in 2001 with a Sh400,000 loan he took from Mwalimu Sacco to buy the 7.5 acres.
“You cannot go wrong with fruit farming. A mango tree with 500 fruits can fetch Sh5,000, with each going for Sh10,” says the Kiswahili and Religious Education teacher at Lariak Day Secondary School, Sipili.
Maina sells the fruits to traders who visit his farm. He also sells in Nyahururu and Nairobi.
“I believe it is the surest way to fight poverty in Laikipia and other dry parts of the country. The demand for fruits is high and the fact that one harvests for long makes the business profitable.”
To get good returns from fruit farming, though, one must be ready to observe good husbandry from planting to harvest, Maina advises.
For instance, to plant paw paws, one must dig a hole of about one metre wide, and one metre deep. One then separates the top soil from the sub soil.
“You should then mix the top soil and farm manure in equal ratio and put them in the hole. The mixture is left for about a week before the seedling is planted.”
Mulching using dry grass also helps to retain moisture and reduce evaporation.
To do all this, Maina is assisted by his wife Grace, who manages the farm, and two workers.
He grafts seedlings in his greenhouse to get quality crops. “I strongly advise those wishing to venture into fruit farming to invest in a greenhouse, which is not expensive. I spent Sh15,000 to construct it.”
Besides producing quality seedlings for his own farm, Maina also sells grafted seedlings at between Sh50 and Sh500.
A grape seedling goes for Sh200 while an apple goes for Sh100. He says his annual turnover from fruits has been rising steadily and he hopes to hit six figures in the next two years.
He plans to begin making his own juice to maximise profits instead of selling raw fruits to middlemen.
His other farming ventures, besides fruits, are bees, dairy, poultry, sweet potatoes, cassava and vegetables.
Maina carefully uses pesticides and chemicals on his farm to avoid pollution as this may affect his bees, which help in pollinating the fruits.
“I started keeping bees for pollination, but I have realised that I can make more money from them.”
Growing fruits in Laikipia, though, comes with various challenges.
“Sometimes elephants and other wild animals stray into the farm and destroy crops. Birds also feed on the fruits and erratic rains interfere with crops.”
To mitigate these challenges, Maina has installed an electric fence to repulse elephants at night. The farmer has also dug a 20-feet well where he collects water to irrigate his crops.
His enterprise has attracted visitors from all over the world who visit the farm in their travel itinerary to the region.
His visitors’ book shows people from Britain, South Africa, United States, Netherlands, Australia, Switzerland, India, France and Japan have visited the farm.
“The Garden of Eden would only be complete if I diversify because I have realised most of my visitors are also dairy and poultry farmers and they ask questions about the ventures.”
Seed Of Gold