For years, residents of Kerio Valley, Elgeyo Marakwet County, considered their area unsuitable for any meaningful agricultural activities.
Therefore, pastoralism has been, since time immemorial, their major economic mainstay notwithstanding the recurrent banditry and cattle rustling incidents that have claimed several human lives and wiped away livelihood of cores of families.
But the semi-arid region is experiencing economic transformation as residents increasingly take up crop farming, particularly horticulture, driven by low investment and attractive returns.
Many of them now consider investment in crop growing to be less risky compared to pastoralism that exposes them to recurrent attacks by armed raiders.
Among those who have started reaping the fruits of diversifying to horticulture is Francis Kiplagat from Cheptebo, Keiyo South sub-county. He has invested in commercial mango production targeting ready market in parts of Western Kenya.
“I have been in the mango farming for the last 10 years and I have no regrets investing in the sub-sector. The returns are much better compared to pastoralism,” Mr Kiplagat told Enterprise.
An acre of mango plantation generates Sh750,000 or more a season on average, depending on how it is cared for. Mr Kiplagat has over 40 acres under the crop.
The farmer grows six different varieties of the fruit targeting different markets. The varieties include, Apple, Ngoe, Tommy, Fantaic, Keit and Keint that are popular in the vast Kerio Valley region as they have high demand.
Mr Kiplagat is among farmers who benefitted from Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA)’s move to encourage investment in fast maturing, disease resistance and high yielding mangoes, thus earning better returns.
“Our partnership with the authority (KVDA) has empowered us on modern mango production in terms of provision of quality seedlings, how to handle diseases and market access information,” says Mr Kiplagat.
“I harvest an average of eight tonnes from 50 acres under the crop,” says Mr Kiplagat.
During the peak season, the farmer harvests about 500 mangoes daily for local markets which are Iten, Eldoret, Kitale, Nakuru and Kisumu.
Prolonged dry spell and disease outbreaks including fruit flies and mango seed weevils are some of the challenges facing mango production in Kerio Valley. Farmers, however, have come up with creative ways to face these setbacks.
“We have adapted the use of traps to fight the pests and plant certified seedlings approved by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis) to overcome the challenges,” says Mr Kiplagat.
Patrick Simiyu is another farmer who has benefitted greatly after venturing into mango cultivation. Currently he has 360 mango trees earning an average of Sh450,000 monthly during the harvest period.
Things are looking better for the Kerio Valley farmers as they are set to benefit from the construction of a mango processing factory at Tot, Elgeyo Marakwet County. The factory is aimed at cushioning them from exploitation by middlemen who offer low prices.
“The factory is a reprieve to farmers who have for long suffered exploitation by middlemen since it will ensure value addition for them,” said KVDA.
Engineers from Britain are finalising plans to set up of the factory with a capacity to process more than 24 tonnes of mangoes daily.
Alvan Blanch Company Project Manager Guy Blanch said the processing plant will process the mangoes into concentrate juice and pastes.
“Apart from mangoes, the plant will also process paw paw and watermelon which are cultivated in plenty in the region,” says Mr Blanch.
Construction of the factory will save farmers between Sh8 million and Sh10 million annually, which are spent on transporting mangoes, oranges, paw paws, water melons and passion fruit to far markets.
“Organic juice will be extracted from the fruit pulp which can be used as a flavour for ice cream or even yoghurt,” says a senior KVDA manager, adding that it will target markets in Netherlands and Europe.
The region produces an average of 25,000 tonnes of mangoes annually but KVDA is looking to encourage farmers to increase production ten times to 250,000 tonnes in the next one year.
The project is expected to create more than 500 employment opportunities and improve economic development of the region.
Lack of cold room storage and market has forced many farmers to sell their produce at throwaway prices while some of the produce rots in the farms.
“The processing plant will be a lasting solution for our marketing misery since the fruits form our economic mainstay after abandoning livestock rearing due to frequent cattle raids," Says Joel Kimaiyo, a mango farmer.
According to the Horticultural Crops Development Authority (HCDA), the North Rift produces some of the juiciest mangoes and has the potential to produce more than 1,000 metric tonnes per year.