CHANGING STRATEGY

Farmer quits coffee farming to venture in avocado business

The Murang'a grower says he grew tired of the mismanagement of sector and lack of consistent pay

In Summary
  • Mburu sells his fruits to a variety of exporters with whom he has engaged in contract farming and who go to his farm to pick the fruits.
  • Despite demanding significantly less attention compared to coffee, Mburu explained that avocados make much more returns.
Robert Mburu displays an avocado fruit in his eight acres farm in Gatanga, Murang'a.
Robert Mburu displays an avocado fruit in his eight acres farm in Gatanga, Murang'a.
Image: Alice Waithera

For decades, Robert Mburu was one of the best coffee farmers in his village in Kihumbu-ini, Gatanga subcounty, Murang’a county.

The farmer had 600 coffee trees that he had tended to for years, producing the best quality coffee.

But in 2015, Mburu grew tired of the mismanagement of the sector that saw him go without payment for several seasons.

The sector was doing badly by then and farmers received as little as Sh 20 per kg of sold coffee.

Mburu decided to try his luck in avocado farming and planted 1,800 seedlings in the coffee farm before he eventually cut the coffee bushes to size to allow the avocado trees to grow.

Before then, he practiced mixed farming and would grow maize and other crops in other parts of the farm.

Mburu now has an orchard that is eight acres big and also has mangoes, bananas and macadamia.

Avocado fruits in Robert Mburu's orchard in Gatanga, Murang'a.
Avocado fruits in Robert Mburu's orchard in Gatanga, Murang'a.
Image: Alice Waithera

He said when he started avocado farming, brokers would buy his fruits for about Sh5 per piece but the prices have steadily rose to up to Sh 25 per piece.

He sells his fruits to a variety of exporters with whom he has engaged in contract farming and who go to his farm to pick the fruits.

As the county consolidated farmers into groups to give them bargaining power with buyers, Mburu chose to go his own way due to the high quantity and quality of his produce.

“I practice organic farming meaning I do not use chemicals in the production of the fruits," Mburu said.

"I set traps for pests and use organic manure. When you do it the right way, buyers compete to come to your farm.” 

Despite demanding significantly less attention compared to coffee, Mburu explained that avocados make much more returns.

“Maintaining an avocado tree is very cheap. You just need about 20kg of manure per year and pests’ traps,” he added.

He said even with the reforms in the coffee sector that has seen some farmers earn up to Sh 100 per kg, he would never go back to the sector as tending to coffee farms is tedious and costly.

Mburu bagged the award of the best coffee farmer this year from the Coffee Society of Kenya.

He has turned his farm into a demonstration spot to train other farmers on proper avocado farming for which he charges Sh500 per person.

He has trained about 900 farmers this year.

A cut down coffee tree sprouting in Robert Mburu's avocado farm in Gatanga, Murang'a.
A cut down coffee tree sprouting in Robert Mburu's avocado farm in Gatanga, Murang'a.
Image: Alice Waithera

He said planting avocado trees is a lifetime investment because even when there is a decline of tree production after about 25 years, it is pruned and its production rejuvenated.

With sufficient mulching, Mburu has never needed to irrigate the farm because enough moisture is retained even when there is drought.

After harvesting, avocados are taken to a pack house where they are graded according to their sizes and packed in cartons before they are exported.

The farmer said while many of his counterparts produce smaller sizes ranging from size 26 to 32, he is able to produce size 12 which is the biggest.

“This means that I only need 12 fruits to fill up a carton while another farmer needs 32,” he said.

He has three varieties of avocados that include Pinkerton, Giant and Hass that are mainly exported to Spain, Dubai and the United Kingdom.

In one season, he is able to harvest up to 4,000 fruits from one Hass tree, 3,000 from the Giant tree and 5,000 from the Hass tree.

The main season is between March and May while the off season harvesting is done between October and November.

Robert Mburu displays a trap set for fruit flies in his farm.
Robert Mburu displays a trap set for fruit flies in his farm.
Image: Alice Waithera

“Just five trees can sustain a family in one season if they are well tended to,” Mburu told the Star.

He said that farmers should make it mandatory to have a few avocado trees in their farms as the market is always available even locally.

Mburu said a single tree takes about two and a half years to fully mature and that a quarter acre farm can accommodate 30 to 40 trees depending on the variety.

The Pinkerton variety, he said, occupies less space and can be planted as a shade tree in a homestead.

With contract farming, Mburu added that he is assured of prompt payment while he ensures no chemicals come into contact with the farm.

Exporters use his farm as a collection centre from which they collect and sort fruits from his neighbours, most of whom engage in conventional farming.

“Most of my neighbours have taken up avocado farming after seeing how much money the fruit makes,” he said.

(edited by Amol Awuor)

Robert Mburu in his avocado farm in Gatanga, Murang'a.
Robert Mburu in his avocado farm in Gatanga, Murang'a.
Image: Alice Waithera