AGRIBUSINESS

Bananas crop up in tea zones as farmers discover potential

Nelson Chirchir earns Sh50,000 per month growing the fruits in Kericho, having started out with a capital of only Sh5,000

In Summary

• Famous for their green hills from tea, Kericho and Bomet are now 'going bananas'

• A farmer who gets orders before the fruits are ready for harvesting shares his story

Farmer Nelson Chirchir has 44 stools of the giant Cavendish in his farm. He has to prop them to restrain them from crashing
Farmer Nelson Chirchir has 44 stools of the giant Cavendish in his farm. He has to prop them to restrain them from crashing
Image: ANNE MWANGEMI

Kericho and Bomet counties are synonymous with expansive tea plantations that have dominated these regions for decades. More greenery is being added to these areas, albeit on a small-scale, in the form of a variety of bananas.

Youthful Nelson Chirchir doesn’t grow tea. He’s set aside a third of his two-acre farm in Sigowet, Kericho, for cultivation of bananas. He has at least four varieties — giant Cavendish, Uganda green, ng’ombe and sweet.

The giant Cavendish is slowly finding its place in Kericho, Bomet and beyond. After learning through research on his own about the characteristics of the giant Cavendish, it became one of Chirchir’s targets. He prides in it. “It has very big fingers. The bunch is also very big compared to other varieties, and it fetches a lot of money,” he says.

 
 
 

Half of his land with the cultivars is dedicated to the giant Cavendish. He has 44 stools. The Uganda green has 40, ng’ombe, two, and the sweet bananas have eight.

He reserves the sweet bananas for domestic consumption. “I introduced the ng’ombe variety as a pilot,” he says. “Due to market demand, I’m increasing them by 10 stools.”

The Cavendish bananas are propped. Without these supports, the crops would crash due to the weight of the bunch, which approaches 30kg towards harvest. Stormy weather would affect the bananas most.

At 32, Chirchir is the chairman of Sigowet Community Demand Driven Committee (CDCC). The farming community here bestowed the position upon him in June 2019 due to his passion for agricultural activities as a youth.

Regarding the Uganda green, “It is the local variety preferred by most people, but its bunches are smaller, and so it’s pricing is also low,” he says.

Some of his customers place orders for specific types of bananas. For instance, “I have one in Nakuru who buys only the giant Cavendish,” he says. “Others from Sondu ask for ng’ombe.”

A few orders have been placed with him for ng’ombe even before the bananas are ready for harvesting.

 
Kalro research scientist Dr Nasambu Okoko delivers tissue culture banana planting seedlings to Kimoson Youth Group in Sigowet subcounty
Kalro research scientist Dr Nasambu Okoko delivers tissue culture banana planting seedlings to Kimoson Youth Group in Sigowet subcounty
Image: ANNE MWANGEMI
 

BANANA FARMING BUSINESS

“I saw this as a business that does not need a lot of capital to start,” Chirchir says concerning cultivation of bananas. The piece of land he grows his crops on is family land.

His start-up capital was Sh5,000 that he parted with to pay some casuals who dug the holes in which the bananas were planted. He paid Sh50 per hole. “I got at no cost the seedlings from local farmers who had the type of bananas I wanted.”

Chirchir graduated in 2017 with a degree in Community Resource Management and Extension from Kenyatta University. He immediately delved into banana farming. He hoped this would keep him busy and also generate some income for him.

His bananas are staggered at different stages of development. This, he says, prevents his farm from being dormant for several months without yielding harvests. It ensures steady income for him. On average, he earns Sh50,000 per month.

“For optimum yields, we apply one ‘debe’ of farmyard manure per stool every month. We also use 250g of NPK 2323 fertiliser per stool. This is the preferred fertiliser for bananas,” Chirchir says.

When customers who normally buy green bananas diminish, “We do value addition: ripen and sell them at Sh10 for two bananas. A bunch can fetch Sh500 or more.”

The Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture Project (KCSAP) aims to improve food and nutrition security as well as increasing incomes at household level. The project is being undertaken in 22 counties.

Senior research scientist Dr Nasambu Okoko says, “Banana is one of the foods that have the ability to improve food and nutrition security. Kericho county selected banana value chain as one of the priority value chains.”

Okoko is based at the Kenya Agricultural and Research Organisation (Kalro) Food and Crops Research Institute in Kisii. 

Chirchir has eight rows of bananas in his plantation in the larger portion of his farm. Each row has 11 stools. In the stools are five or six bananas. A smaller portion of the farm has an additional 12 stools.

BANANA SEED SYSTEM

There seems to be no stopping for Chirchir. A chunk of his land is bare. Kericho county receives sufficient rainfall in a year. He wants to capitalise on this. He’s fixed his mind on adding another block of the crop. “I want to get it from Kalro so I can add the new varieties that are resilient to diseases and drought.”

Dr Okoko says, “Banana is one of the crops, although very important, that do not have an organised seed system.” Therefore, Kalro and various partners have been working with the Agriculture ministry, county governments, Common Interest Groups (CIGs) and the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) to build seed bulking and a distribution programme. 

Improved varieties that are climate-smart and yield highly have been developed. Kalro aims to promote these seeds for adoption by counties.

The plantlets Chirchir might get as he expands his plantation may come from the tissue culture banana nursery at Kalro in Kisii, which is filled with seedlings that are tolerant to environmental stress.

“The purpose of the nursery,” says Dr Okoko, “is to supply clean planting material to farmers in Kalro’s mandate region and also for on-station use, for expansion of the institution’s orchard.”

The nursery houses varieties of improved cultivars, such as Grand Naine, Williams, giant Cavendish and ng’ombe. The tissue culture banana seedlings are ready for transplanting. Each plantlet costs Sh100.

Dr Okoko personally delivers tissue culture planting materials to various groups with eagerness to demonstrate planting techniques. She says the youth, women and the physically challenged are the groups that are targeted by the KCSAP.

Under KCSAP, Chirchir says, “We’ve been receiving training on banana production, value addition and new varieties,” he says. “After ripening, the giant Cavendish has a longer shelf life. It can take up to two weeks before going bad, unlike the Uganda green, which takes two or three days,” he says.

FUNGAL INFECTION

He cites the cigar-end rot disease as one of the challenges that he has to contend with. The disease is caused by the fungus Trachysphaera fructigena or Verticillium theobromae. It spreads to the tip of the bananas and causes a scotched-like rot that resembles the ash of a cigar. The disease could affect a whole bunch.

Chirchir explains that he does pruning to promote air circulation in his plantation. Dampness around the fingers provides conditions conducive for the thriving of the fungi that cause cigar-end rot.

However, overall, Dr Okoko says, “These banana varieties are tolerant to diseases and drought. Even under extreme climate changes, they are able to grow and the farmer will be able to harvest some.”

Thankfully for Chirchir, only one finger in his Cavendish variety bunches was spotted with the cigar-end rot infection. Another challenge for Chirchir is that sometimes, customers troop to his farm for varieties that he might not be readily having.

Chirchir exercises caution when cutting down his crops after harvesting a bunch. He ensures the sprout or sucker is not destroyed because, in due time, it also will produce a stock of bananas.

From a seedling, the Cavendish takes about 18 months to be harvested.

Edited by T Jalio