After leaving secondary school and lacking fees to continue with his education, Amos Morori had to shelve his ambition of becoming the first engineer from his village.
He started herding his family’s livestock on the plains of semi-arid Kerio Valley in Elgeyo Marakwet County and occasionally grew kales to help his father pay school fees for his younger siblings.
But owing to the searing heat and erratic weather pattern, he opted for irrigation farming, his crop of choice being watermelon - the fruit thrives in the area.
It has been two years since Morori, 38, went into watermelon farming, a venture that has brought boundless fortune, making him the only millionaire in his village. He says going into farming was a priceless decision.
“I settled for watermelons because they do extremely well in Kerio Valley. The fruit is high-yielding, matures fast and has a huge market,” he says. His record fruit so far weighs 25 kilos.
Raring to go and armed with Sh40,000 after persuading his father to sell a few heads of cattle to enable him start the venture, Morori started growing the fruit on their farm along the banks of River Kerio. He first cultivated an acre before up-scaling the farm to 10 acres.
The area has rich volcanic soil and high temperatures and its proximity to the river offered him easy access to water. The plant requires lots of water to thrive, especially at the fruit formation stage. Lack of adequate water leads to low-quality fruit.
Watermelons grown on the highlands are of lesser quality than those in hot areas – those grown under hot conditions are sweeter, bigger and give more yields. This explains why Morori’s farm is full of clients from as far as Nairobi and Kisumu each harvesting season.
“After two-and-a-half months, I harvested 30 tonnes of the fruits, fetching over Sh800,000. Depending on the season, we sell the fruit at between Sh14 and Sh30,” he says. After deducting costs he had over Sh500,000 profit.
To minimise costs, he has dug trenches along the beds which he fills with water from the Kerio River. The water sometimes fills the trench for up to a week, making him save a lot in fuel since he relies on a generator to pump the water.
Watermelon, he observes, has high returns. “I spend between Sh50,000 and Sh70,000 per acre. This covers cost of seeds, labour, chemicals, irrigation and fertiliser. No season have I experienced a loss in the venture,” Morori says.
With good management, one can harvest 30 to 40 tonnes per acre. And he prefers the Sukari F1 type of watermelon because of its hard and fleshy outer rind, making it immune to most farm pests. Another variety also grown in the area is Sugar Baby.
It is easy to start a watermelon farm. There is no need for a nursery bed, the watermelon seeds are planted directly in the farm. Recommended spacing is 1.5m between rows and 1m between the plants.
The watermelon fruit is generally composed of water. The over 92 percent water in the fruit serves as a great refreshment to quench thirst.
It is also very nutritious; it has vitamins A, C and B6, folate, potassium, amino acids, antioxidants and other healthy ingredients, yet it is low in calories. Demand for the fruit is at its highest due to health benefits associated with it.
It is, however, susceptible to diseases such as leaf spot, dumping off, powdery mildew and blight. Beetles, mites, leaf miners and thrips are some of the pests, which make Morori incur a lot of expenses in buying chemicals to control them.
Dumping off is a fungal disease that causes seeds to rot before they germinate. Spider mites are serious pests of watermelons, especially during hot, dry weather and they feed on the plants sap and can defoliate vines in a few weeks.
Leaf miners cause injuries to the leaves, resulting to destruction of the leaf tissues. Thrips are insects invading the flowers and feeding on plant juices. They are visible to the naked eye.
Watermelon prices vary according to market forces. This poses a huge challenge to farmers, who find themselves at the mercy of middlemen.
Depending on the season, a kilo of watermelon goes for up to Sh35 and during the off-season a kilo fetches as low as Sh10.
“Middlemen usually take advantage of desperate farmers, especially those who get high yields but find no market. Lack of ideal market linkages for farmers means brokers dictate farm prices,” says Morori, a father of two.
Smart Harvest visited him at his farm where we found a handful of traders lining up to buy the fruits.
“At the moment, I am harvesting a five-acre plot. Since it is off season the price is low, with a kilo fetching a low of Sh13. After the expenses have been deducted I hope to rake in a profit of at least Sh500 000,” he says.
Morori wants Kenyans to change their attitude towards farming. “Many people, especially the youth, see farming as an occupation of the old and illiterate,” he says.
He urges the government to invest heavily in agriculture to make it a viable option for income generation, saying that students should be encouraged to see agriculture as a career from a tender age.
Bad roads in the area and lack of value addition of the products are Morori’s major challenges.
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