It has been three months since the mango season in Makueni County ended. But a section of Faith Mumo’s orchard at King’uutheni Village is teeming with fruits ready for harvesting.
The 26-year-old runs a small factory which turns ripe mangoes into crisps for the export market. The mango crisps business is hinged on aggressive rainwater harvesting.
We joined mango farmers, traders and lovers who toured the orchard and factory as part of the first national mango conference held recently at the nearby Wote Town.
“We have divided the orchard into two parts. One part depends on rain while the other is irrigated. Irrigation has enabled us to produce more mangoes,” Ms Mumo said after showing the visitors around the factory tucked at a corner of her homestead.
The organisers of the mango expo settled on Ms Mumo’s mango enterprise because it is climate-smart. The 20-acre orchard with 970 mature mango trees as well as several fish ponds dotting the homestead depends on rainwater collected from a sprawling rock which covers the compound using an elaborate rock catchment system which funnels into a giant farm pond.
The fish ponds are filled with catfish at various stages of growth all year round.
“Our farm pond fills in one rainy season. It lasts for two years. We influence the flowering of the mango trees by watering them shortly before the rainy season so that they become bushy. Mango trees do not produce when they are bushy.
The other trick we employ is stressing the trees by plucking down the flowers during the rainy season. Once the rainy season is over we irrigate them to influence flowering.
With the combined approach to mango production we are assured of fruits and crisps throughout the year,” Ms Mumo, who trades as Iviani Farm, told a mesmerised audience.
Speakers at the Makueni mango expo had identified the seasonality of mangoes as a big challenge in unlocking the potential of the value chain as experts advised farmers to go for varieties which mature late and invest in cold storage facilities.
“Ms Mumo’s is a simple and practical way of expanding mango production in the wake of the drought,” said Joshua Marube, a Meru County agriculture official who had accompanied a team of mango farmers from the county to the mango conference.
According to scientists, irrigation is one of the ways of triggering off-season fruiting in some fruits.
“Through irrigation, a mango tree can shorten its recuperating period if epigenetically it senses that it has enough resources to balance flowering and growth. This is reinforced by good agricultural practices,” says Professor Josephat Kimatu who teaches agriculture at South Eastern Kenya University.
Although Ms Mumo’s background is in fish farming management which she studied at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, she sees herself more as an industrialist.
As a young girl growing up in a rural farming community where mango is a major cash crop, she experienced first-hand the anguish of post-harvest loss among her relatives and neighbours.
Immediately after graduating, she was posted at the Department of Agriculture in Makueni County government as an intern.
This is where she came to appreciate the pain of post-harvest loss among growers of mangoes in the county.
According to Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis), mango farmers lose 4 out of every 10 fruits they harvest to attacks by pests and lack of market.
To address the problem, the plant health agency has teamed up with USAID to roll out an ambitious programme to create pest-free zones in Makueni which, according to figures shared by the Horticultural Crops Directorate, is the biggest producer of mangoes in the country.
A mango processing factory set up by the county government has created a sizable market and stabilised the price of the commodity.
According to Makueni Agriculture Executive Joyce Mutua, the Makueni County Fruits Processing Factory has, however, not addressed the mango marketing woes fully as it absorbs only a small portion of fruits.
This has invited innovative entrepreneurs such as Ms Mumo. A setback which Ms Mumo suffered during her internship catapulted her into the mango crisps business.
“The monthly pay we were entitled to during the internship was delayed for two years for some reason. When it finally came it was a lump sum. The Sh480,000 formed part of the capital I needed to start my venture,” she said.
With plenty of fruit at her disposal, she imported a boiler from India through a loan which she has since cleared. It uses firewood sparingly and maize cobs.
The production of mango crisps follows the collection of fresh fruits from the orchard and selected farms across the county.
They are stored in a ripening yard awaiting cleaning and slicing in a sterile environment. They are dried using a special machine for six hours.
After drying to the desired dimension the mango crisps are packaged ready for the market
Ms Mumo exports the crisps to Italy, the Netherlands and South Africa where a kilo fetches Sh1,000 on average.
“It takes around 10 average-sized mangoes to make a kilo of crisps. They last up to a year. We are unable to meet the demand,” she said.
She is in the process of introducing the crisps to the local market. Looking back, Ms Mumo is proud of her achievements, especially in relieving mango farmers of the pain of post-harvest losses.
She has created at least 15 job opportunities. She requires 14 workers, most of them women, to process 2 tonnes of mangoes per day in two shifts.
She is however convinced that the enterprise is punching below its weight considering that most farmers in the region harvest mangoes at the same time because they depend on rainfall to sustain their orchards.
Ms Mumo bets big on an ambitious move by the county government to promote off-season fruit production in the region to take the enterprise to greater heights.
The water marshal plan, as it is known in government circles, entails promoting the irrigation of orchards to expand the production of fruits, and targets mangoes and pixie which are some of the most lucrative fruits that thrive in the semi-arid region.
According to Makueni Water Chief Officer David Makau, the rollout of the plan is expected to start in July.
“Studies have shown that it is more economical and profitable to irrigate fruit trees compared to irrigating vegetables.
This is why we are expanding the land under irrigation. We are setting up irrigation schemes along River Athi to create sustainable livelihoods by spurring the off-season production of fruits.
At the same time, we are setting up large dams at the grassroots to supplement the existing water sources. This will avail water for domestic use and irrigation.
Over and above that we are delivering the water to the households, instead of dispensing it from kiosks, so that farmers can irrigate their orchards,” Mr Maithya said.