Parched and dusty, the red soil of the semi-arid Kathonzweni sub-county in Makueni County appears barren, supporting mainly desert shrubs.
Well, this is before one reaches Joseph Muthama's Sweet Waters Farm in Ivinga Nzia village, some 45km from Wote Town, where hundreds of orange trees are flourishing, sagging under the heavy weight of the fruits.
It is the orange season in Ukambani and other parts of the country like Embu and Muthama, like many other farmers, is currently a very busy man, harvesting and selling the produce despite the Covid-19 gloom.
Before the pandemic, most of the fruits consumed in Kenya would be brought in bulk from Morogoro and Tanga in Tanzania, leading to a glut in the market.
However, restrictions imposed by the government on truck drivers at border points, which include mandatory Covid-19 testing, have slowed down food imports, translating into a boon for local producers amid an increase in consumption of the fruits by consumers to keep away common cold and boost their health.
A Seeds of Gold team finds Muthama with a number of workers harvesting the fruits as buyers wait to weigh, pay and ferry them to Machakos, Nairobi and Mombasa, among other towns.
"Most of the buyers visiting farms for the fruits are from outside this region," says Muthama, noting that the classification of food producers, traders and transporters as essential service providers during the Covid-19 pandemic has enabled business to thrive.
"Business has never been this good. I am receiving more customers than I expected. The Covid-19 pandemic is actually a blessing in disguise," adds the former science and mathematics teacher at Ilumani Primary School in Kathonzweni.
He grows pixies and minneola tangelo oranges, which are also nicknamed the honeybell due to their shape.
The orange is a cross between a tangerine and a grapefruit. He farms the citrus fruits on 15 acres and has 3,950 pixies and minneola orange plants.
The latter are bright and reddish-orange in colour, easy to peel with a mild tartness and juicy with relatively few or no seeds.
On the other hand, pixies are orange in colour and have no seeds. They vary in peel texture, shape and size and are believed to have originated from Israel. They are also rich in Vitamin A and C.
IRRIGATE THE CROPS
"This area is too dry but we are lucky that the farm is near River Athi, whose water we use to irrigate the crops. I have installed an irrigation system that enables me to produce fruits all the year round," he says.
Initially, Muthama, who retired from teaching in January, was farming mangoes on the land as a side hustle. But he realised most people in the region grow the fruit, thus prices are usually down.
"I then decided to shift to citrus farming in 2016, but focused on pixies and minneola oranges because they offer more cash than normal oranges and are on high demand," he explains, noting he has been expanding the acreage since then.
The farmer has learnt the art of grafting, where he uses lemon root stocks and pixie and minneola scions to end up with hardy plants.
"We plant the seedlings in a 3x3 feet holes in which we place organic manure and keep until they grow. The fruit trees take four years to mature and can last for up to 50 years."
His wife, Angeline Mutua, is the farm manager and spends most of her time checking on the workers and receiving customers.
"Most of my customers are referrals and I have also created networks in Nairobi. In a week, I receive about 10 buyers who come with pickup trucks and lorries to buy the oranges."
He sells a kilo of oranges at Sh150 when demand is high, but when the fruits flood the market, a kilo drops to Sh60.
In 2019, Muthama harvested 52.5 tonnes of oranges with each going at Sh80,000. This year, he has already surpassed the tonnage as demand remains high.
"I spend about Sh800,000 in a year to maintain the farm by spraying, irrigating and pruning the trees but the fruits bring in more making it a good business," he says.
"I start harvesting in December and do it for up to five months but the peak is usually from April to May."
Miles away in Embu, Roseline Ndwiga is another farmer who has recorded a boom, thanks to the pandemic.
BUSINESS IS DOING WELL
On her farm in Kiamusinga village in Mbeere south constituency, ripe oranges dangle on trees, waiting to be harvested.
The farmer, who has 170 trees, says she ventured into orange farming with the help of her husband, Jackson Njeru, in 2016. She grows the crop on an half-acre, alongside others like pawpaws, mangoes and avocados.
"The orange business is doing well during this period of Covid-19. The only challenge is transport out of Embu.
Business will be much bigger when lockdown is lifted and hotels open up. I am currently selling at markets, to neighbours and some hotels and juice parlours," says the farmer, noting a kilo is going at Sh50.
Roseline, who bought seedlings from Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, Mtwapa in Kilifi at Sh150 each when starting, notes she grows the Washington navel and Valencia varieties. They are big in size, sweet, easy to peel and have a lot of water.
"These varieties are good for making juice though one can still eat them as they are and enjoy the succulent taste from the fruits. A tree gives me 100-150 kilos," she says.
Lack of reliable market was among the challenges she grappled with in the past, but since the outbreak of Covid-19, she is relieved.
Andrew Ndeto, the head of nutrition department at Jodan College of Technology, Thika, says oranges are a rich source of Vitamin C, which is essential for boosting the body's immune system and fighting off colds and infections.
"Vitamin C boosts the immune system by stimulating the production and function of white blood cells, which are the 'body soldiers' that attack and destroy harmful microorganisms. Thus, it is advisable to eat more oranges to boost immunity."
One of the diseases that attack the crops is foot rot, which causes orange trees to rot, but this can be controlled by antifungal sprays.
Mr Joseph Muthama says before the coronavirus pandemic, he would get groups of visitors coming to learn.
For groups, he charges Sh200 but for individual visitors, he sometimes allows them to learn for free.
"We have put in place all measures as ordered by the government. There is water and soap at the entrance. Visitors must also wear face masks and observe social distance," he says.
However, the number of visitors has reduced, with one or two farmers visiting a week.