Enterprise

Adding value to fruit trees is my business and it pays well

SilaMbolu1

Mr Sila Mbolu at his fruit tree nursery in Tala, Machakos County. His business model entails adding value to fruit trees through grafting. PHOTO | PIUS MAUNDU | NMG

Summary

  • A drive along Nairobi-Kangundo Road shows a restive region that is rapidly expanding as residents surrender farmlands in the countryside to rich investors who set up factories, modern homes, and commercial buildings.
  • After graduating from Egerton University where he studied farm management, Mr Mbolu took the most beaten path; looking for a job.
  • After working for 10 years in various private farms he set his eyes on venturing in agribusiness.
  • He decided to put his expertise and passion in the supply of seedlings, a layer of the agribusiness value chain he said is less vulnerable to risks.

A drive along Nairobi-Kangundo Road shows a restive region that is rapidly expanding as residents surrender farmlands in the countryside to rich investors who set up factories, modern homes, and commercial buildings.

At the busy Tala Township, however, Sila Mbolu has resisted the urge to ride the real estate wave. The father of three has instead established a flourishing fruit tree nursery.

At his homestead situated two rows behind the main road, shade nets housing dozens of assorted palms and all sorts of tropical fruit tree seedlings greet visitors. But unlike conventional nurseries, Mr Mbolu does not grow the seedlings himself. He buys and adds value to them.

"We buy raw seedlings from roadside nurseries and graft them with high quality scions which we source from established mother blocks. For tissue culture bananas, we harden them to enhance their survival in the fields,” Mr Sila told the Enterprise during a guided tour at the nursery.

The household is a beehive of activities thanks to the nursery. At any one time, there are four workers grafting macadamia, watering the various seedlings and packing them in bags.

“Instead of soil we grow the seedlings on coco peat. We source the planting medium, which is made from coconut wastes, at farms in Naivasha. A tone costs Sh1,000. Over the years we have established that coco peat is a superior planting medium because it is free from nematodes and diseases, retains moisture and helps in the establishment of the root system of the seedlings because it is loose,” he said.

Mr Mbolu recommends scions from mature trees.

“Using mature scions guarantees a significant reduction in the time the resulting fruit tree takes to mature. Importantly, grafting enables a farmer to influence the variety of fruit his orchard will produce. For instance, grafting indigenous macadamia varieties with Murang'a 20 variety cuts 10 years of waiting. The indigenous macadamia variety matures after 13 years which is not good for a farmer in agribusiness. Grafting the indigenous variety with the Murang'a 20 variety takes three years to mature,” said the agriculture expert.

Less vulnerable to risks

After graduating from Egerton University where he studied farm management, Mr Mbolu took the most beaten path; looking for a job.

After working for 10 years in various private farms he set his eyes on venturing in agribusiness. He decided to put his expertise and passion in the supply of seedlings, a layer of the agribusiness value chain he said is less vulnerable to risks.

“The more a seedling remains in the market the more value it adds. This is not the case with a fruit or a vegetable,” he said.

To start himself up, he took a Sh 200, 000 loan from Universal Traders Sacco.

Mr Mbolu started with tissue culture bananas which he bought at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

Rough patch

He was not prepared for the lull in the business that followed. He made the first major sale after going through a rough patch.

"We made our first million in 2005 when we were almost giving up following a pronounced financial dry spell," said.

He had landed a deal of supplying tissue culture bananas to Kyanzavi Farmers’ Cooperative Society, a community of coffee growers who were diversifying to bananas.

He has since scanned and archived the cheque which he treats as a souvenir. Over the years he has latched onto the increasing demand for apple mangoes and citrus fruits which do well in the region and expanded the portfolio to include tropical fruits such as avocado, grapes, macadamia and oranges. He also deals in ornamental palms.

Most of the customers Mr Mbolu has been serving are referrals from satisfied ones. The referrals also come from the dozens of roadside nurseries and small scale nursery operators he has helped to establish from where he sources raw seedlings.

Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis) has also played a big role in marketing the business by publishing it on their website after certification.

The government requires that all nursery operators are registered by county governments and the Horticultural Crops Directorate at the Ministry of Agriculture and then certified by Kephis to regulate the supply of clean and high quality planting materials.

Although Mr Mbilu does not grow mangoes himself, he is the chairman of Machakos County Mango Value Association, a community of 6,000 mango growers and cooperatives.

He is also the chairman of Horticultural Association of Nursery Operators in Kenya, a little known community which advocates for their welfare.

“The main challenge in operating a nursery is the lack of experienced labour. Many young people are running away from agriculture because they say it is dirty. Not many colleges are training on basic practices such as grafting. Yet grafting of seedlings and mature fruit trees is in high demand. It is also a big opportunity for young people as one can graft 1,000 pieces in a day each going for between Sh5 and Sh10," he said.