In a small quiet village in Njabi-ini, South Kinangop, David Ndirangu Gathura is busy harvesting tree tomato fruits.
Ndirangu is making a good living selling tree tomatoes and exploiting a market whose potential has still not been realised.
The 42-year-old started growing tree tomato fruits in 2014 after an unplanned visit to a farm in Nyeri.
Prior to his visit, Ndirangu admits he did not know much about tree tomato farming. However, what started as a favour to pick seedlings for a friend marked the beginning of his venture.
"While on my way to Nairobi from Nyeri, a friend of mine sent me to pick tree tomato seedlings for him from a farm in Nyeri. I did not take an interest in finding out how they are grown or any information about them, but when I delivered the seedlings to him, he explained about the potential of tree tomatoes. I thought about it and later did some research and found out that there is a ready market for the fruit. So I went back to the farm in Nyeri to learn more about how they are grown since that farmer was more established,” he says.
Ndirangu bought 1,200 seedlings at Sh50 each from the farmer and planted them in a three quarter-acre piece of land.
He says when planting, you dig a hole and add a lot of manure before you plant your seedlings which are about three inches long.
Tree tomatoes, also known as tamarillo or matunda ya damu in Kiswahili, grow to a height of three to five metres long. The fruits are egg-shaped with their skin colour ranging from orange, yellow, deep purple to blood red.
Ndirangu grows the red oratia variety whose fruits are big in size, have an attractive colour and are sweet. This variety is also high yielding and can produce about 800 fruits per tree annually.
He says there are very few farmers who grow tree tomatoes as a commercial venture in Kenya yet there is a ready market. But unlike other fruits, tree tomatoes are easy to grow.
However, the main challenge is that the fruit is selective and it can dry after the first harvest.
"Tree tomatoes require a lot of water so I harvest water which I use for irrigation. Aphids and white flies are also a big problem but I use insecticides once every quarter,” he says.
He sells his fruits at the Marikiti market where a kilo fetches between Sh90 and Sh140. Tree tomatoes are not seasonal and can be grown all year round.
Ndirangu, who also grows cabbages and potatoes, harvests tree tomatoes every Tuesday. So far he has harvested 600kg.
"At the moment, I am taking all my produce to the market but in future I am thinking of getting into value addition to make jam and juice,” says the father of three.
Currently he has employed four people to help in harvesting, packing and loading to the lorry which transports the fruits to the market in Nairobi.
"I pay them Sh600 each and spend about Sh4,000 on transport since I do not have my own car to take the fruits to Marikiti,” he says.
Ndirangu holds field days for farmers who come to learn how to grow the fruit. He charges Sh200 per person. So far he has had visits from farmers from Olkalau, Murang'a, Kajiado, Kiserian, Nyahururu and Subukia.
"I would like to encourage farmers to venture into tree tomato farming as this is one of the best ways to earn money. It needs a lot of attention for one to attain maximum benefits. The plant requires about 30 litres of water in a week and also need to be spayed to prevent blight disease as well as the white fly insects. You also need to use manure and weed especially when the plant is young,” says Ndirangu.