After completing his doctorate in soil fertility and plant nutrition at Wyoming University in the US, Dr Onesmus Ng'etich came back to Kenya full of knowledge and expertise in the farming field that he was so passionate about.
Having a PhD, one would probably think of getting a well-paying job under the national or the county government but for Ng'etich, he thought of owning land and venturing into horticultural crop production. His first idea was to get land where he would produce certified fruit seedlings and encourage Kenyans to embrace fruit farming, saying it was a good investment that was earning people good income in many countries he had toured.
In 2017, Dr Ng'etich bought a plot at Koilebel, in Kipkenyo, Uasin Gishu County where he set up a nursery and a demonstration farm for his clients.
"I started the process of establishing this nursery that I named Eldoret Orchards and Nursery Investment in 2017. In April 2018, I started producing the first avocado and apple seedlings followed by grapes, strawberries and tangerines then many others," Ng'etich explains.
At the farm, he installed pipes to draw water from the nearest water point and built an improvised water tank using timber and polythene to ensure the nursery had sufficient water during the dry periods. Within four years, the demonstration farm is well established, and he encourages his customers to visit his farm before buying seedlings from him.
"I have a demonstration farm for every seedling I am producing. When a client visits, he or she is able to see the outcome of the seedling in phases and what to expect. I also give out useful information on fruit farming to those who visit the farm including students and agricultural officers," he adds
The nursery which is three acres large has been serving fruit farmers from all parts of the country, many being from Nyanza, Eastern, Coastal Region, and a number from Kerio Valley where farmers are currently practicing large-scale fruit farming. He has been able to produce certified avocados, apples, pomegranates, tree tomatoes, different types of tangerines, grapes, and pawpaw seedlings and supply them to his customers.
"I have many customers from warm climate areas, which are ideal for fruit farming. The fruits from these regions are delightful, unlike fruits from high altitude areas with cold weather and much rain," he says
His aim was to provide fruit seedlings for Kenyans to produce fruits for Kenyans and not for export.
"I believe as Kenyans we should feed ourselves first before we think of exports. Many people come here asking me if I produce fruits for export, but I tell them no. The main market is with us because the population is growing. If we produce enough fruits, then Kenyans will consume them and move towards nutrition and food security," he added.
Some of the tangerines produced at the farm include soft skin oranges like Daisy, Pixie, Satsuma, Clementine, and Mineola. The thick skin oranges include Washington Navel, Karakara Navel, Grapefruit, and Mediterranean Sweet oranges.
Dr Ng'etich sells a seedling at between Sh250 and Sh350, depending on the type of fruit.
"The seedlings vary in price depending on the type of fruit. The pioneers of this nursery are already seeing the yields and are now looking forward to producing fruits for the market. I have also inspired people to establish their own backyard fruit farms, something that I am really proud of," he says.
The fruits produced at the demonstration farm, especially the apples, are harvested and sold to the community at a fair price. Some are consumed by the families of the people who work on his farm. He currently has five permanent workers at the nursery and has several members of the community working for him on a daily basis.
Dr Ng'etich, who also holds a bachelor's and master's degree in horticulture from Egerton University, says he was inspired by the need to be financially independent to venture into fruit farming.
"Being employed is not my thing. Meeting deadlines, attending meetings, showing cause and so much more bother me. It's good to be your own boss and I believe that your money is your best money," he says.
He was also inspired by his father who was a farmer and ensured his siblings and himself work at the farm. He says that when he was a Standard Six pupil, he had a tree nursery and would sell grafted avocado seedlings and other fruits at Kipkaren in Nandi County.
Dr Ng'etich has also ventured into large-scale production of fruits. Currently, he is waiting to start harvesting fruits from his two acres of apple farm situated in Nandi County. He says that he will be harvesting the first fruits in 2023.
He also owns land in Biretwo, Elgeyo Marakwet County along the Kerio Valley where he has planted five acres of pawpaws and different types of tangerines including pixie tangerines.
"I am now moving to field production of fruits which is easier to manage, and the returns are good compared to the production of seedlings which is very tedious and intensive. A nursery requires a lot of attention. It is quite expensive to start an orchard, but after sometimes the labour needed is minimal until the harvesting period," he says.
While fruit farming is a lucrative deal, there are a number of challenges that if not countered could result in a big loss. These challenges include employee turnover, especially at a time when there is much work to be done, and lack of water during prolonged droughts and excess rains.
"Fruits thrive well in dry areas with minimal rainfall. They shoot well, and we only have to control pests like mites. During heavy rains, however, one might not spend much in irrigation, but there are many diseases that attack which are caused by rotting of the root zones due to excess water," Ng'etich explains
Ngetich urges farmers to embrace apple farming only when they are interested in the venture and are available, saying the fruit, despite being a high-value crop, needs a lot of attention. He experimented on eight apple varieties on his demonstration farm including Braeburn Apple, Fuji, Granny Smith, Royal Gala, Golden Dorsett, Anna, and Winter Banana but realized that only three varieties were productive in the area.
"Braeburn, Golden Dorsett and Anna do well on this farm. Golden Dorsett and Anna are inter-planted because apples are incompatible when it comes to pollination. These two varieties flower at the same time, so they pollinate each other. The results are full round fruits acceptable in the market. If not pollinated well, there will be a lot of deformed fruits," he adds.
He also suggests that those planting Anna apple varieties, should consider putting up at least 3 beehives per acre of apples and ensure the use of insecticides is minimised to ensure harmful chemicals do not kill or scare away the bees.
Apples are considered climacteric fruits, which means they ripen after being picked by producing much ethylene that makes them sweet and soft.
Braeburn variety is known to have a longer shelf life and can go up to 30 days at room temperature without perishing while Golden Dorsett and Anna are known to have a shorter shelf life.