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Cooler helping farmers cut post-harvest losses

By Mercy Adhiambo
Paul Kithuli display some of the crafted avocado and oranges seedlings as taught by JKUAT. 30/05/2019 (Jenipher Wachie, Standard)

In 2012, Patrick Kathuli and his wife had a conversation that he says changed his life. He was ailing, constantly getting ulcers and knee pains that made his life as a mathematics teacher in Makueni intolerable. He could no longer ride his bicycle to class at 5am like he used to, and with each day that he woke feeling sick, he was convinced he needed to change his career.

“I told my wife that I am resigning. I had no plan. I had been planting trees before so I thought I should put my energy on the trees,” he says.

His peers thought he had gone crazy. For them, leaving employment for farming, especially in Kitui where the weather patterns were unpredictable was unimaginable. Even more confounding was the fact that he had chosen to plant trees and not crops like beans that his peers thought was more profitable.

They told him trees would take a long time to mature, and with his ill health, some of them outrightly said he may not survive to see the fruits of his trees blooming.

“Everyone I told that I am thinking of growing trees for fruits said it was a bad idea. They suggested maize, beans, vegetables and poultry, thinking they would give me better yields,” says Kathuli.

He stuck with his decision. When he got his exit package of Sh281,000, he sunk it all on trees. He approached a neighbour who was selling land, bought a portion and planted more seedlings. His career as a fruits farmer started, despite the many voices that still reminded him that he had made a wrong decision.

He started with growing citrus fruits that he grafted to have superior quality. He then went into mango and avocado farming but in small scale. His first few years as a farmer were defined by consultations from agricultural officers, NGOs that were educating farmers, and a few other people growing fruits in the region. He admits that there were days when he felt like he was groping in the dark and he almost gave up.

“There were not many people growing fruits in large scale at that time. Information was hard to come by, and it sometimes felt like I was on my own,” he says.

After three years, some fruits were ready for harvest. It is then that he was confronted with a reality he had not thought about.

“I had so many fruits and nowhere to sell them. They were rotting in farms. Brokers from Nairobi and other places would come and buy at three shillings per fruit. I would give some for free because I had no buyers,” he says.

His story reinforces that of many farmers in Kenya especially those in rural areas and have not found innovative ways to market or store their products after harvest. It is a journey they walked every season, and he says there are days when he would donate his fruits as animal feeds to neighbours.

“I would tend my fruits through hard labour, but I was getting such little profits and it reached a point where my passion for farming was the only thing keeping me in the business,” he says.

In 2017, things changed. He was informed by one of the people he had consulted with when he was starting out that researchers from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) were looking for farmers in Makueni, particularly fruit farmers, who they could partner with to try out a charcoal cooler technology they had invented. ?

Dr Daniel Sila, lecturer at JKUAT and lead researcher of the charcoal cooler project says they came up with the technology to mitigate against farmers' losses.

They chose Kathuli because he already had a lot of trees, and his background in teaching was an added advantage.

“We wanted someone who could also teach other people on the best farming practices. His determination at a time when most fruit farmers were giving up was admirable,” says Dr Sila.

When JKUAT constructed a charcoal cooler in Kathuli’s compound, he says his life was transformed. The weight of what to do with fruits after harvest was lifted.

“Now when I harvest, I keep them in the cooler and only sell at a price that works for me. I am not in a hurry to get rid of fruits just because I do not want them to rot,” he says.

His wife Joyce Kimatu says their pricing has increased, and they can now sell one kg of fruits for as high as Sh100, up from the less than Sh20 that they used to do before they got the cooler.

The couple says they have increased the number of tree seedlings they grow, and have even branched into selling seedlings. They currently have 5,000 seedlings for the pixie oranges which is a popular species among farmers. Their passion seedlings are more than 1,000 and they have been increasing their collection of citrus fruits, hoping to increase the number to more than 30,000 seedlings before the year ends.

“The people who used to discourage me are the ones who are now coming to buy trees from me because they have seen that trees can earn you money,” he says.

The charcoal cooler has also given them an opportunity to think about value addition.

“We are thinking of making purees, juices and pulp for sale if we do not get market for our fruits,” he says.

He says fruit farming in Kenya still has challenges, such as attacks from the persistent fruit flies, but he is determined to push through.

He says the cooler has sparked a new determination in him, and he will continue growing fruits and selling beyond Makueni.    

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