Sunday, Feb 01st 2015

Kiambu farmer finds fortune in strawberry 'flower bed'

Tuesday, March 19, 2013 - 00:00 -- BY AGATHA NGOTHO

Her passion for growing strawberries started from a sickness she had for many years and due to space limitation, she planted them in old jerry cans in her front yard.

"Instead of planting flowers as the norm, I decided to plant strawberries in the quest for the best fruits that could work for my stomach problem and also to keep my family healthy. The strawberries played two purposes - flowers and fruits. They looked beautiful and people often asked me what flowers I had planted but they were amazed once they saw the berries. Few tried to plant them in their homes," Dorothy Mwaura says.

Years down the line, Mwaura now grows strawberries in a greenhouse for commercial purposes and food for her family at her home in Kiambu. She is one of the successful strawberry farmers in Kiambu and has influenced other farmers to try their hand in growing this nutritious fruit.

"It is often said that an apple a day keeps the doctor away and strawberries are second to apples in nutritional value. However not many people grow them in Kenya but the few that do sell the berries to groceries and local supermarkets," says Mwaura, a mother and grandmother of four children and five grandchildren.

After retiring from the insurance business, Mwaura relocated from town to live in their rural home in Kiambu where she took up farming as a hobby and also to sustain her family since she had no other source of income.

Her husband put up a greenhouse where she began growing various vegetables including tomatoes and capsicum. However, the thought of growing strawberries had not crossed her mind but the disappointment of planting tomatoes and capsicum drove her to strawberries.

"I was very discouraged when some of the capsicum and tomatoes I planted in the greenhouse started withering. I thought of planting a few strawberry stems just out of curiosity and the few I planted grew so well and very fast. I begun adding more strawberry stems gradually and I haven't looked back since," Mwaura says.

She noted that unlike tomatoes and the capsicum she grows on and off, strawberries are susceptible to pests and diseases.

"It hasn't been easy and strawberry farming takes a lot of your time especially when they start ripening. You have to pick them early in the morning before nine o'clock when the humidity is ideal. It is advisable to do your marketing before planting strawberries to avoid losses as they are perishable and delicate," Mwaura says.

Though she grows the fruits to make jam, she has specialised in seed production and she is the main supplier of strawberry seeds to farmers in Kiambu and its environs. She sells one split at between Sh30 and Sh35 and she says that if only 25 out of 100 splits mature, a farmer should not be discouraged.

A quarter kilogram of strawberries costs between Sh80 and Sh100 while a half kilogram can cost between Sh180and Sh200 depending on your clientèle.

A spot check in various local supermarkets found that a 250-gram pallet costs Sh179 and many are supplied by one trader. However there were a few locally produced berries with a 250-gram pallet selling at Sh119 but unlike fruits such as grapes and apples, fresh strawberries are not so common in the shelves.

Mwaura says marketing is a major challenge in strawberry farming in Kenya and for consistency in the market, more farmers need join in the production of strawberry.

The passion and determination of this woman has not only influenced many farmers in Kiambu to strawberry farming but has also seen the establishment of the Kiambu Strawberry Growers and Processors Association.

"When I realised I could not meet the little demand there was for strawberries, I approached other farmers in my neighborhood and told them the benefit of strawberry farming. I thought if many of us put our berries together, then we can be able to meet a certain demand," she adds.

The association has 26 members and to be a member, one must have a minimum of 250 seedlings which they either sell to other interested farmers or produce berries to make jam for value addition.

"The jam processing project is still very new and for a start, we have been making jam and packing it in 300 and 500 gram tins and selling to the locals to get feedback.

"So far, the feedback we have got is positive and we have now taken a sample to the Kenya Bureau of Standards for quality assurance and inspection before we can start selling our products into the national market," says Mwaura, the chairperson of the KSGP Association. She noted that they do not add any additives to their jam.

A 300-gram tin costs Sh200 and a 500-gram tin goes for Sh250. They however face a challenge as they do not have a processor.

"We use the normal blender when making jam and it is a tedious process that is time consuming but we carry on. It takes a whole day to make about 100 tins of jam and after that each member takes with them a number of tins to sell," she says.

Mwaura says they hope to have a jam and juice processor in future. After conquering the Kenyan market, they hope to penetrate the regional market as well.

Her strawberry farm is now a case study on strawberry farming and she has become a trainer to farmers willing to try the new project.

She says that while eating fruits and vegetables is generally good for one's health and longevity, strawberries have medicinal values. "They prevent cancer and help the body to manage your sugar level and you only need to eat eight berries in a day," she adds.

Strawberries are rich in vitamin C and other medicinal compounds such as omega 3 fatty acids, magnesium and vitamin K. A study from the University of Barcelona indicates that strawberry extracts prevent ulcers, cancer and diabetes.

Strawberry farming is a multi billion dollar business around the world and the fruit is a high value crop in Kenya for export and local market.

They are healthy packed fruits that can be eaten whole or made into fruit salad, juice, yogurt or milkshake.

There are three types of strawberries; June bearing, ever-bearing and day neutral.

June bearing varieties produce harvest around the month of June and hence their name. They are known to produce the largest strawberries over a period of two to three weeks after planting.

Ever bearing varieties produce two harvests per year but under ideal conditions, they can go up to three harvests. They have less runners unlike the June bearing variety.

Day-neutral varieties, unlike June bearing varieties, produce a good yield in the first year they are planted and have smaller berries.

Mwaura says in Kenya, most strawberries go for as long as three seasons and after that you uproot the fruit and plant new seedlings. However each harvest is different and it tends to reduce each year throughout the season.

She concludes by saying that every investment starts from sustaining your family. "You cannot invest when your family is hungry and the first market is your health, anything else you sell is and should be the excess. That is how we reduce poverty in our country as envisioned in the Vision 2030 blueprint."

She advises that instead of planting flowers in our flower gardens or in our veranda or corridors, we should look for innovative ways to plant vegetables that will provide food for the family and save on costs.