Two years ago, Richard Mwangi quit his job as a watchman at a coffee factory in Murang’a after thieves nearly killed him while on duty.
The thugs were a godsend since they offered the push he needed to get out of his low paying job and venture into farming. But first, he was arrested, interrogated and later released without charge over the incident. As he recuperated from the thorough beating the armed robbers had given him, he realised he had pushed his luck too far and it was probably a matter of time before something grave happened to him. “I had been a watchman since I was 25 and I had been in that factory for three years. My salary at the time of resigning was Sh5,000 a month,” he says.
He relied on the pay to support his family of four. “I was aware that resigning was going to be very painful because I did not have an immediate plan for my life. But I was also alive to the fact that remaining poor, but alive was a better option.”
In order to pass time, the 45-year-old became a permanent feature at his nearby Muthithi Shopping Centre in Murang’a where he joined other elders in playing draughts. He would win around Sh100 daily.
One day, he attended a farmers’ field day at a neighbour’s garden and realised that farming could be the way out for him.
“The organisers from USAid Kenya gave us tips on horticulture varieties. I am quick with math and I instantly realised that this was my opening to start earning decently,” he told Enterprise.
He settled on thorn melons. The fruit is a botanical relative to cucumbers, pumpkins, butternut squash and watermelons as it is from the cucurbitaceous family. It is also known as the jelly or horned melon, or African horned cucumber.
Mr Mwangi received 100 grammes of seeds from the USAid Kenya representatives and he set for his home where he prepared a seedbed.
“Within three months of nurturing 1,000 seedlings. I was in business. The price per kilo of thorn melon was Sh70. My first harvest was 700 kilogrammes. I pocketed Sh49,000. I knew my date with riches had arrived,” he said.
The harvests continued for three consecutive months during which he had harvested a total of 5,000kgs fetching him Sh350,000.
Soon after, he planted 3,000 more plants and by the end of last year, says Mwangi, he had made a cumulative Sh1.5 million in net profit.
However, the market prices of the crop keep fluctuating since more people have taken an interest in the fruit. The lowest market price he has encountered so far is Sh30 per kilo while the highest was Sh100.
He says the fruit is popular because it is said to have several health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, managing diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and obesity. It is also said to aid metabolism.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has approved thorn melon as a good source of vitamin C, potassium, iron magnesium, phosphorous, zinc, copper, calcium and sodium.
The organisation further says thorn melon seeds contain linoleic and oleic acids — linoleic being one of the omega 6 fatty acids capable of maintaining brain and nerve function.
Oleic acid is the charm responsible for blood pressure-reducing effect.
Mr Mwangi says the fruit requires little husbandry and its cost of production is low and it adapts well in both warm and hot regions.
“It grows well at an altitude between 210 feet to as high as 1,800 feet above sea level,” he says, adding that “out of Sh100 you make, about Sh20 covers cost of production”.
The plant also needs plenty of compost manure which he has in abundance from two cows. “From the second month of the plant’s lifespan, I apply compound fertiliser and later top-dress with calcium ammonium nitrate (fertiliser),” he said.
Productivity threats are minimal since diseases such as mosaic virus, tobacco ring spot virus, tomato ring spot virus, watermelon mosaic virus and fusarium wilt that thorn melon is susceptible to are kept at bay by use of easily and affordable solutions.
From there on, he sprays the leaves with folio feed, which contains zinc and potassium.
Mr Mwangi says he uses piped water connected to his home for irrigation.
“When there is water rationing in Murang’a County, the cost of watering my plants goes up since I have to contract labourers to fetch water from a nearby dam,” he says.
“Give us water and we will get ourselves enough food and money. I get irritated hearing government officials lay out budgets worth billions in the name of mitigating drought in the country.
“Those officials are either illiterate, or, they budget for their personal gains,” he says.