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How mango farmers got the better of fruit flies and brokers

Phyllis Nduva, like hundreds of other mango farmers in Makueni has seen the highest and lowest moments in mango farming. She started mango farming 22 years ago, and today, she does not regret it. Nduva started mango farming in 2000 with several false starts.

"My mangoes were always attacked by fruit flies and the few that I harvested fetched little money," Nduva recalls the journey. 

The money was little due to exploitation by middlemen. But over the years she has managed to grow her fruits orchard, tree by tree.

“I now have more than 600 mango trees and 1,000 orange tree. I grow  alternative crops because fruits are harvested in seasons,” the farmer says.

In a bid to boost their bargaining power, the mango farmers came together in 2012 and registered a cooperative society that has 3,000 farmers. They were able to secure an export market in Dubai.

“During the second year of export, we made huge losses in the Dubai market after our mangoes were rejected because they had been eaten by fruit flies. We later learnt that we had not understood the market well and some unscrupulous traders took advantage of our ignorance. We registered losses amounting to Sh600 million,” Nduva says. It was a blow to the members and some wanted to quit the business all together. Luckily for them, in 2018, USAid stepped in and trained Nduva and other farmers on mango growing for export market and pest control. Slowly, the cooperative and county government of Makueni stabilised the prices, which increased from Sh2 to Sh15 per fruit.

Fruit fly menace

As part of the training, they learnt tips on integrated pest management technologies which helped in eradication of fruit fly in certain zones within Makueni and other pest infested areas. According to Crop Life International Integrated Pest Management or IPM, is a system of managing pests which is designed to be sustainable. IPM involves using the best combination of cultural, biological and chemical measures for particular circumstances, including plant biotechnology as appropriate. This provides the most cost effective, environmentally sound and socially acceptable method of managing diseases, insects, weeds and other pests in agriculture. Fruit flies may be small - but they are one of the biggest enemies of fruit farmers, especially mango. The larvae of these insects often infests ripe fruits, making them unusable. Traditionally, farmers use traps with pheromones - chemicals that attract the flies - and then hand-count the dead insects every 10 days.

“We were taught how to use the technology to trap fruit flies, which was the main cause of post-harvest losses. We have reduced post-harvest from 60 per cent to 30 per cent,” says Nduva.

Market and marketing of mango fruits was another big challenge, she remembers. Makueni is among the leading mango producing counties in Kenya. More than 109,465 Makueni residents grow and sell mangoes through cooperative societies, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Nduva says, through the cooperative, a market survey was conducted in six counties with an aim of doing inter-county trade between Makueni and counties where there was high demand for mangoes.

“From the survey, the farmers discovered local markets that saw them sell mangoes locally to Migori, Homa Bay, Busia, Garissa, Bomet and other counties. Mangoes were exchanged with other agricultural produce such as avocado and potatoes,” she says.

She says that water was the biggest challenge and many farmers were struggling with irrigation. According to Nduva, water harvesting remains a big challenge because it is an expensive venture and requires support from governments. “We are now introducing the youth to take up fruit farming and understand dynamics of cooperative management.”.

Julius Maithya, the CEO of Makueni County Fruit Development and Marketing Authority says the fight against fruit fly has been partly won. For the last four years, Makueni has been processing mangoes from farmers. He says the processing plant purchased 1,000 metric tonnes of mangoes and that the quality was impressive.

“The plant has a capacity of 5,000 metric tonnes per hour and we can only process five per cent for the local market. The factory is underutilised,” he says, adding that the surplus is absorbed in the local market.

“We have been producing 10,000 drums of puree, and we sell to juice producers in and outside Kenya.

To produce the puree, we first sort the ripe mangoes, wash them then we cut them in small pieces, and squeeze out the juice. For it to last long we put in containers and place in a fridge.

“We make about Sh50 million on average per season. This is shared in an equitable manner among members and the rest is reinvested into the business,” Maithya says.

While the price of a single mango ranges from Sh15 to Sh25 per kg, the cost of puree range from Sh50 to Sh80 per kilo. Nzioki King’ola, the county executive in charge of agriculture, says despite the fruit fly and water challenges, Makueni remains the leading producer of apple mango.

“Farmers were being exploited by middlemen who bought mangoes at as low as Sh2. The export quality is now Sh60. We suspended ourselves from the European market about 13 years ago because of fruit flies,” King’ola says.

“All our farmers have fruit fly traps in their farms after we mounted a campaign that resulted in fruit fly – free areas in Makueni and we are now back to the European Union market,” Joseph Mbithi, a crops expert from Field Organic says the firm launched Komesha Fruit Fly programme in 2018.

He says the programme advocates for the use of organic products to control fruit fly.

“It has been effective in controlling fruit flies. We don’t spray the fruit. We spray the stem and it attracts the fruit fly. Framers are now achieving more produce and have reduced post-harvest losses by 50 per cent. There are no residues in the fruit,” Mbithi says.