Enterprise

How Makueni mango farmers reap big returns in low season

Mwasaa

Mr Maingi Mwasaa harvests mangoes at Ndataini Village in Makueni County on October 3, 2020. PHOTO | PIUS MAUNDU | NMG

Summary

  • Ubiquitous mango trees sagging with fruits at different stages of maturity sway gently to the breeze sweeping across the neighboring River Athi creating a spectacle to behold at the height of the dry season.
  • Mangoes produce optimum yield four years after planting.
  • The farmers play around with watering to ensure the orchards produce during the low season.

Tucked at the heart of Ndataini Village in Makueni County, Maingi Mwasaa's idyllic mango orchard stands out in the dry neighborhood overlooking Yatta Plateau.

Ubiquitous mango trees sagging with fruits at different stages of maturity sway gently to the breeze sweeping across the neighboring River Athi creating a spectacle to behold at the height of the dry season.

Mangoes are the main cash crop in Makueni. More than 109, 465 Makueni residents grow and sell mangoes through cooperative societies, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, making the dry county the biggest producer of the popular fruit which is either eaten raw or blended into juice. The main mango season starts in January and ends in March. But Mr Mwasaa and a handful of his neighbors harvest their crop months before the onset of the main mango season, thanks to their mastery of plant physiology.

“Harvesting of mangoes starts in September and tails off in November. We influence the anomalous production,” he tells the Business Daily on the sidelines of a harvesting spree.

The principal at Mirira Secondary School in Murang’a County waded into the mango value chain in 2009 after burning fingers in the matatu business. Armed with a determination to succeed, the business economics teacher put his three and a half acre plot bordering River Athi on 500 indigenous mango rootstock which he later grafted with apple scions obtained from local vendors.

“Although indigenous mango varieties are less productive compared to the exotic ones, they are best suited as the rootstocks because they are highly resistant to drought and pests,” he said. Watering the seedlings regularly and fencing off the plot ensured at least 90 per cent survival rate. The trees start producing fruits 18 months after they are grafted.

Mangoes produce optimum yield four years after planting. The farmers play around with watering to ensure the orchards produce during the low season.

"As soon as the March-April-May rainy season is over, we prune the trees and cut off the supply of water for a month. This leads to the production of flowers. Once the flowers emerge, we resume watering starting with little water which is increased gradually as more flowers sprout,” Mr Mwasaa said, revealing a practice which is widely used to produce a wide array of fruits during the low season.

“When plants are subjected to stress, be it water stress or nutrition stress, they respond by stopping the production of branches and leaves and instead directing its resources to the production of flowers and other reproductive materials. This is a plant survival mechanism. It is widely used by scientists in the breeding of crops and farmers in the production of crops during the low season,” said Dr Jane Ambuko, who teaches horticulture at the University of Nairobi.

Four months after the mangoes produce flowers, the fruits with a purple color are ready for harvesting. A tree produces between 200 and 500 fruits each season. The low season production gives farmers high farm gate prices. It also stabilizes the supply of the commodity to overseas markets. Dozens of agents of exporters of fresh fruits make a beeline to the orchards during the dry spell. They buy a fruit at Sh30 on average, tenfold the average price the fruits fetch locally. The fruits mainly end up in the United Arab Emirates.

The trees should be well taken care of to be productive. The orchard should be watered regularly. Mr Mwasaa, who pumps water from River Athi, fills shallow basins at the bases of the trees with water once every week. Watering goes hand in hand with pest management and disease control.

The main disadvantage of low season production is that the crops are more prone to attacks by pests. “This is because there are not many hosts in the neighborhood to share the pests,” said Dr Ambuko. Therefore, agronomists advise farmers to be on the lookout for red spider mites and fruit flies which cost mango farmers more than half of their profits in post-harvest losses. Thanks to the pest menace, for instance, farmers in Makueni earn Sh2.5 billion from the sale of mangoes annually, down from Sh5 billion potential as estimated by the USAID. The fruit fly has locked out Kenyan mango farmers from the lucrative European Union market.

The government through Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services and other stakeholders last year rolled out an ambitious campaign to eliminate fruit flies in the mango producing zones. Dubbed Komesha: Zuia Fruitfly Ufaidike the campaign advocates for the use of a combination of integrated techniques which include maintaining farm hygiene, pesticides, and pheromone traps which reduce the population of the pests in the long run by eliminating the males.

The campaign is intended to promote the production of high-quality mangoes so as to enable farmers access the lucrative European Union market once again.