Horticulture farming is gaining popularity in the North Rift region as high production costs push hundreds of farmers to diversify to alternative investments with attractive returns.
Farmers in Kenya's grain basket must contend with rising fuel and farm-input prices.
The region produced horticultural crops valued at Sh13.6 billion last year, up from Sh8.6 billion the previous season, as more farmers invest in the sub-sector.
Farmers in Uasin Gishu County earned over Sh2.6 million from more than 48,000 metric tonnes of passion fruits cultivated on about 360 hectares.
Nandi County produces an average of 7,000kg of passion fruits monthly, targeting regional and export markets.
"About 2,000kg quality passion fruits are exported to the European market monthly and the rest are sold in the local and regional market," said Emmanuel Tarbei, agronomist and agent for Equatorial HortiFresh firm in Nandi.
Most farmers in the region have received support from USAid and the Kenya Horticulture Competitiveness Project (KHCP) to invest in passion fruit cultivation.
KHCP helps farmers produce quality fruits, vegetables and flowers, with a special focus on strengthening the value chains related to eight crops: sweet potato, Irish potato, passion fruit, mango, banana, tomato, cabbage, peas, and beans.
Cultivating passion fruits and vegetables, farmers say, also cushions them against losses caused by repeated outbreaks of maize lethal necrosis (MLN) disease and the fall armyworm that damaged over 260,000 hectares of the crop valued at Sh2 billion last season.
Among the beneficiaries is Gideon Bett, a retired teacher from Kaptumo, Nandi, who earns Sh14,000 a week from 200kg of passion fruit, which he sells for Sh70 per kilogram.
"The repeated outbreak of MLN disease and an unpredictable market discouraged me from growing maize and I instead decided to invest in passion fruit cultivation," he said.
Members of Kisarich Self-help Group in Maraba division, Nandi, earned Sh1.8 million last season from passion fruit following support from USAid and the Ministry of Agriculture.
"We aim to generate over Sh4 million this season after more maize farmers diversified into passion fruit cultivation, driven by better returns," said chairman Cleophas Keter.
He appealed to the Horticultural Crops Development Authority (HCDA) to sensitise them on modern production skills and required conditions to penetrate the European market.
The Energy Regulatory Commission has increased the price of diesel by Sh7.94, pushing it to Sh116.31 in most parts of the North Rift as farmers prepare to harvest this season's crop, thus adding to their operational costs.
The fuel prices are expected to increase further in the next two weeks, as the Kenya Revenue Authority plans to increase excise duty on selected products to cover the 2020/21 inflation.
It costs a farmer Sh4,500 to plough an acre of land, with the production of a 90kg bag of maize estimated to cost Sh1,700, making it the highest in the East African region.
The region has the potential to produce 25,000 tonnes and 20,000 tonnes of mangoes and passion fruits respectively annually, HCDA says.
Subjecting farmers to exploitation
But lack of a steady market and poor infrastructure are discouraging farmers from investing in the business, which is more profitable than other crops.
"More than 40 per cent of mangoes produced in the region go to waste due to lack of a market while middlemen offer low prices for the fruits, subjecting farmers to exploitation," said an HCDA report released in March.
But this is set to change, with the agency planning to build a multimillion-shilling fruit processing plant to boost the cultivation of the crop targeting the export market as a source of income for pastoralists in the region.
The Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA) has commissioned a Sh70 million mango processing plant in Tot, Elgeyo Marakwet County, to cushion farmers in the highly productive horticulture region from exploitation by middlemen, who offer lower prices.
County governments and other stakeholders in the region have also embarked on an ambitious strategy to utilise Eldoret International Airport by promoting investment in products targeting the export market to generate additional revenue and boost the local economy.
The airport has two cargo handlers - Canken International and Siginon - with cold rooms but which are unused due to lack of products for export markets.
The Canken storage facility's capacity is 110 metric tonnes of dry or imported goods and 230 metric tonnes of fresh produce, while Siginon has 40 metric tonnes of cold storage capacity and another 200 metric tonnes for dry cargo.
Canken owner Ahmed Mohamed said they approached the Kenya Airport Authority (KAA) in 2006 to build cold-room facilities at the airport.
"At that time, we realised that there was a problem of cold storage facilities. The KAA enabled us to acquire a piece of land and supported us to develop a storage facility," he said.
But they were hit by a major challenge of insufficient volumes of horticultural produce for the export market.
Under the USAid project, he said, farmers were trained to empower them to grow the crops for the export market but eight years later they abandoned the mission when most farmers failed to cultivate the required quality and quantity of the crops.
"Our target was to get at least 40 tonnes a week to sustain the export market but we only managed to get between three and five tonnes. And with that we aborted it," he said.
Data from the airport indicates that at its peak, in 2006, some 956 metric tonnes of agricultural produce were exported through it.
The cargo import volumes stood at 8.5 million kilogrammes in February this year (2020/21) compared with 9.6 million in the same period the previous year, with the drop attributed to the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some of the international cargo airlines that bring goods to the airport are Emirates and Ethiopian Airlines. Astral Aviation, a local cargo airline, is another that launched its inaugural flights in March this year, ferrying goods from the Middle East to the airport.
"Most of the cargo planes bring these goods and return empty. I believe that if we support local farmers to grow specific crops for the international markets, they will earn more than they do from maize, wheat and dairy farming," Mr Ahmed said.
Flower and other fresh produce farmers in Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia counties transport their goods by road to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi for the export market.
Most large farms in the flower business prefer transporting their produce to Nairobi because it has several cargo handlers and customers have many options based on charges.
Most of the flowers produced in the North Rift are exported to Australia, Japan and European countries such as Germany and Russia.