Kenya: Farmers grow pineapples in challenging conditions

| August 5, 2019

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It’s eight o’clock in the morning and Barare Nyang’au is busy pruning pineapple plants on his farm. The father of four whistles his favorite tune as he removes suckers from pineapple stalks laden with fruits. At the same time, he checks and rearranges the mulch between rows of plants.

Mr. Nyang’au’s two-acre pineapple farm is located on a steep slope, and the sandy soil contains small stones. As he prunes, Mr. Nyang’au picks up the stones and throws them beyond the edge of the farm.

He says, “No one would imagine that there is a crop that could be grown on this land. But I have managed to turn it around into agriculturally productive land.”

Mr. Nyang’au lives in Mong’oni village in Nyamira county, about 110 kilometres from Lake Victoria in western Kenya.

In 2014, he tried planting pineapples on the land, even though it was considered unproductive for most crops because of poor soils and persistent drought. The results surprised him: the pineapple crop survived and he had a good harvest.

Mr. Nyang’au says many other farmers have tried to grow various crops on Mong’oni and other nearby hills with similar soils, but none were successful.

He tried growing groundnuts earlier, but the crop did not do well. Other farmers tried maize, tea, sorghum, finger millet, and cassava on similar, hilly soils, but their harvests were poor.

Charles Onderi tried to grow tea on the same poor soil, but was unsuccessful. In addition to poor soils, the area is affected by severe dry spells.

Mr. Onderi says his tea plants withered and some completely dried up. He explains: “I decided to leave my land unattended for over 20 years. But when I saw my neighbours succeeding with pineapples on the same land, I started tilling my field and planted pineapples too.”

Richard Omwoyo is a farmer whose field is very close to Mr. Nyang’au’s farm. Mr. Omwoyo tried to grow various food crops on his field, but the harvests failed. He says his crops didn’t survive because the soil didn’t retain moisture for long. He adds that the persistent drought worsened the situation and contributed to the crop failure.

James Orori is the crops officer in Nyamira county. He says pineapples are best suited to well-drained soils like those in Mong’oni village and nearby areas.

Mr. Orori explains that pineapple’s ability to store water allows the plant to adapt and grow well in areas where soils retain water poorly. He says, “Pineapples have an ability to store water in their cells—and their leaves trap water which is utilized by the plant when dry spells strike.”

Although local rainfall is inconsistent because of dry spells and the soil is poor and unsuitable for growing many other crops, Mr. Orori says farmers can successfully grow pineapples in the area and make a living.

Mr. Nyang’au was one of the first farmers to plant pineapples in the area. Many farmers borrowed suckers from him in order to establish their pineapple farms. In fact, so many farmers needed suckers that he started charging 10 Kenyan shillings per sucker ($.10 US). Since then, pineapple has become the main cash crop for many local farmers.

Mr. Nyang’au has about 6,000 plants in his farm and harvests about 100 pineapple fruits a week. He sells them at 40 Kenyan shillings each (about $0.38 US) and earns approximately 4,000 Kenyan shillings ($38 US) per week.

He says that a lack of reliable markets is one of the major challenges facing local pineapple farmers. He adds that, to overcome this challenge, farmers need to start adding value to the fruits and form a co-operative to help market their produce in an efficient and more profitable manner.

He explains: “We are many farmers producing more than 100 tonnes of pineapples in a week. If we are trained and assisted to start processing our fruits [into products like juice] for a wider market, then we will be able to earn more.”