Kenya: Resilient entrepreneur invests in pawpaw and passion fruit after losing watermelon crop (Farmbiz Africa)

June 24, 2019
A translation for this article is available in French

Margaret Mutheu stands under a pawpaw tree, proudly showing off a cluster of healthy fruit as someone snaps a photo. She is happy and relieved with her good harvest of pawpaw, which is ready to sell to fruit processors. Just a few years ago, Mrs. Mutheu was looking at a failed watermelon crop in the same field in Kaewa, in Machakos County, just east of Nairobi.

This is a semi-arid, hilly area, a location for tourists to hike and camp. Here, farming typically involves maize and drought-resistant crops such as sorghum and millet. But when Mrs. Mutheu started farming in 2016, she decided to plant watermelon on the two-acre plot of land that belonged to her father. The 34-year-old was expecting a sweet return, but was instead rewarded with drought, diseases, and porcupines. After consulting a local agronomist, the agri-entrepreneur returned to the field.

Mrs. Mutheu graduated from Maseno University in 2008 with a degree in computer science and started working for Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. But in 2016, she quit her job and decided to start a business producing watermelons.

She invested 450,000 shillings ($4,360 US) from her and her husband’s savings, including 300,000 for labour to clear and plough the land. She spent the rest on an irrigation system, watermelon seeds, fertilizers, and chemicals to protect her crop.

She explains: “I had to spend a lot during this first time because, besides lacking experience in the new venture, the land had not been cultivated for many years [and] hence there was a lot to be done to make it ready for the crop.”

She planted watermelon in May 2017 and was expecting to harvest in August. But porcupines invaded the farm and ate a good number of mature fruits. Others withered away because of drought and diseases, and still others were stolen. She was only able to sell 50 kilograms of watermelon, earning a total of 4,000 shillings. So she lost 446,000 shillings in her first season.

She says: “The failure in my watermelon business broke my heart as it was my first attempt in agribusiness—and I was surprised how much money I lost on a farming venture expecting sweet returns. However, this did not discourage me because my passion has always been business entrepreneurship.”

She decided to do some research to find a crop that requires less water. She and two friends decided to start growing passion fruit and pawpaw. They consulted a local agronomist before planting, and he tested the soil and advised them on the viability of the crops.

With an additional 150,000 shillings ($1,450 US), they bought certified seedlings and planted them on one acre of land in December 2017. The goal was to plant the crop by the end of the short rainy season, as the two crops do not need much water. In case of drought, the friends had access to water piped from Masinga Dam and a reservoir tank installed on the farm. They pay between 1,000 and 2,500 shillings ($9.69 – $24.21 US) per month for irrigation.

It took nine months for the two crops to mature, but Mrs. Mutheu and her colleagues now harvest 50 kg of pawpaw and 150 kg of passion fruit every two weeks. They say they can increase their yield by 10 kg with each harvest. They sell both fruits at 150 shillings per kilogram ($1.45 US/kg). They mainly sell to a processing company in Nairobi, and also market passion fruit on social media. They say the market for selling pawpaw and passion fruit is particularly good.

Mrs. Mutheu also buys fruit from neighbouring farmers and sells them to her customers, earning her additional income. The women’s next venture? Building their own plant to process fruits in the area, which will reduce the amount of fruit wasted due to a lack of market or a good price.

This story was adapted from an article called “Resilient farmer earns Sh100,000 a month from pawpaw and passion farming after losing Sh446,000 in watermelon,” written by Zablon Oyugi for Farmbiz Africa. To read the original story, go to: http://farmbizafrica.com/farmbizopinions/10-profit-boosters/2616-resilient-farmer-earns-sh100-000-a-month-from-pawpaw-and-passion-farming-after-losing-sh446-000-worth-of-watermelon