In 2011, Mutheu Kithuma’s life took a turn for the worse as she was forced to shut her tour firm when the number of foreign visitors dramatically dwindled following insecurity threats posed by terrorist group, Al-Shabaab.
Kenya witnessed a surge in number of terror attacks between 2011 and 2014, forcing western countries to issue travel advisories. This pushed many businesses in the hospitality industry on to a rocky road.
For Ms Kithuma, the closure of the business would, however, open another door for her that would bring her a good fortune.
“When the terrorist attacks increased in the country, tourism sector was hard hit and this saw the number of visitors coming to the country significantly reduce. I did not have an alternative than to close my tour firm,” says Ms Kithuma.
In 2013 she embarked on farming and although she grappled with a number of setbacks initially, she has now attained great success and is one of the largest mango exporters in the country.
Why did she decide on farming? One of the roles that her tour venture undertook was organising benchmarking trips to different countries, where she got a chance to leanr about farming. She also realised that farming is a profitable business and, therefore when things went south in hospitality industry, she easily switched gears to agriculture.
Now, Kibwezi Agro Limited, which she co-founded, exports mangoes to countries in the Middle East. She also buy mangoes from farmers in the area for export.
She has planted 10,000 trees of mangoes on her 180 acre farm, making hers one of the largest orchards in the country, with 46 permanent employees. She plans to expand it to more than 20,000 trees in the near future.
Farming, however, was not a walk in the park as there were many false starts. Despite a series of challenges, Ms Kithuma did not give up on the enterprise.
In 2012, she had tried her hand in growing watermelon on five acres of land. The returns were initially good and she decided to double the size to 10 acres in the next season. But things did not turn out as she expected as the crop failed after expansion.
“They did not flower and in essence this meant that they couldn’t produce. But I never gave up in farming,” she says.
The teething challenges are now in the past. Her venture has grown tremendously and she is now making a name in the exports business. At the moment, Ms Kithuma is eyeing the lucrative European market where Kenya is scheduled to resume exports starting September.
She says the European market will come as a major boost to her and other farmers given that the earnings from Europe are 20 percent more than what they are getting at the moment from Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Middle East countries.
Kenya has been exporting mangoes to the Middle East after the country self-imposed ban to avoid interceptions from European countries, but the returns have been low compared with what farmers would earn from EU states.
The move to resume exports to EU has been enabled by the creation of pest-free areas that will see all the mangoes from these areas become free from fruit flies.
Directorate of Horticulture says the country is ready to resume export because of suppression of fruit flies.
Wilfred Yako, assistant director of regulations and compliance at the directorate, says Kenya is now set to return to the EU market following the initiatives that have been put in place.
“Since 2020 to date, it has been established that the levels of infestation have drastically gone down and this gives assurance that farmers will now access the EU market,” says Mr Yako.
Ms Kithuma notes that Kibwezi region is not highly infested by the flies because of varied seasons in the area.
“Normally the mango season here starts in September, which is different from other regions within Makueni County. That in away helps in lowering the prevalence of the fruit flies,” she says.
Other parts of Makueni harvest their crop starting December going all the way to March.
Kibwezi Agro Limited also plans to start value addition on her mangoes for both local and international market.