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How 28-year-old graduate runs thriving tree tomato farm in Meru

Douglas Kirimi at his tree tomato farm at Lucerne village, Buuri, Meru County. [Phares Mutembei, Standard]

While many young people troop to big towns and cities when they graduate to look for white-collar jobs, Douglas Kirimi 28, went against the grain and has no regrets. 

Mr Kirimi, who did a Bachelors Degree in Economics and Finance at Kenyatta University says after watching his parents practice tea farming at their Gaturi home in South Imenti, he decided to follow suit, albeit with a different crop.

“In high school, agriculture and mathematics were my favourite subjects. Even as I make good money from tree tomatoes, I am pursuing an ambition of becoming an agronomist. I want to master value addition and empower the community to be food secure,” he says.

Kirimi has now settled down at his tree tomato farm at Lucerne village in Buuri Sub County, Meru County. Though it is physically challenging, the rewards are worth it.

“The idea of a white-collar job did not appeal to me much because from an early age one of my best hang-outs was in the farm. I loved being in my parents’ tea farm,” says Kirimi.

Regular water supply

The soft-spoken Kirimi started out with the Giant Red oratia and Incra red varieties on his farm in the hilly area at the foot of Mt Kenya. Since he was a greenhorn, to test the waters Kirimi initially planted a small number of trees and scaled it up season after season.

Kirimi says for one to succeed, there must be an adequate supply of water. But this was a challenge because vast areas of Buuri are semi-arid.

“Tree tomatoes require a lot of water. A plant consumes an average of 40 litres every two weeks. I joined a community water project to ensure the plants never lacked it,” he says.

After visiting established farmers with the same crop, he was able to pick some useful lessons on production.

 Now he has 1, 000 trees of the Giant Oratia and 300 trees of the Incra red varieties at his farm.

“The investment was worth it, despite the fact that there was a lot of work I had to do for trees to start to produce the fruits. One tree here yields between 20 to 30 fruits annually.”

During their peak, some trees have more than 30 fruits. A single fruit sells at Sh10 at local markets.

“But I sell mine in kilograms to largescale buyers from Nairobi. Some take them to re-sell to juice processors and others supply the Wakulima and other markets. The coronavirus has hit me hard, because I now sell a kilo at Sh70, down from Sh90,” Kirimi shares.

To boost his revenue streams, he has diversified.

 “Seedlings were expensive, so at some point I started my own nursery. In addition to having a good source of seedlings whenever I find more space, I also sell to other farmers at Sh30 a piece,” says Kirimi.

One of the biggest challenges he faces is pest control especially the aphids.

Given that he has a modest farm, to ensure his efforts pay off, he had to plant many trees.

But with time, he was able to save enough money and buy two acres of land in Igoji East, South Imenti Sub County.

“I shuttle between my two farms, because I have to monitor the trees throughout. It is labor intensive. I have employed casuals who I pay Sh300 per day when there is a lot of work to be done,” he says.

Kirimi never plants any other crop on the same patch the trees occupy.

“Because it is not good to inter-crop. Irish Potatoes thrive in this area but I cannot plant them with my tree tomatoes, because the potatoes are susceptible to many pests and would infect the fruit trees,” he shares.

Many farmers make the mistake of inter-cropping with vegetable, yet vegetables are like to transmit aphids to tree tomatoes, he notes.

To beef up security at the farm he has put a barbed wire around and has two dogs on guard.

“They bark fiercely when they see strangers near the fruits. No thief can dare come near the fruits,” he says.

Expert's advice

Dunstan Kaburu, Meru County Agriculture Department says tree tomato fruit contains fibre, vitamin A, B, C E and K and minerals as well as antioxidants.

On production, he says tree tomato or Tamarillos require a well-drained fertile, light soil that is rich in organic matter with a pH of 5-8.5. Perfect drainage is also necessary as standing water for even a few days may kill the plant due to its shallow root system. The plant cannot tolerate prolonged drought and must have ample water during dry periods. It requires rainfall of 1,200 - 2,100 mm per year. The most suitable areas are 1,000 -2,000m above sea level though it can be grown up to 3,000m above sea level. However the fruit is slow to ripen at higher altitudes.

Land Preparation

Land should be well prepared to a fine tilth and eliminate all perennial weeds. Well rotten manure should be incorporated into the soil. This reduces the use of fertilisers. In poorly drained soils ridges must be prepared for planting to keep water away from the roots.

Propagation

The crop is propagated from seeds or cuttings. Seeds produce the high-branched, erect trees. The seeds are taken from fully ripe red fruits. They should be separated from the pulp, washed and dried in the shade then planted. The seeds germinate in three to five weeks.

On the other hand cuttings develop into a shorter, bushy plant with low–lying branches suitable for exposed windy sites. Cuttings should be 10-30 mm thick and 45-100 cm long. They are taken from 1-2 years old wood.

Planting and spacing

The spacing in the field varies depending on the management practices, soil fertility and environmental conditions. The spacing is 2.5 -3 metres between plants and 3 metres between the row or 1.0-1.5metres between plants and 4.5-5.0metres between rows. Closer spacing is recommended in windy unprotected locations.

Manure and Fertiliser Application

A compound fertiliser such as 17.17.17 is applied at planting mixed with a handful of well composted manure. Top dressing fertiliser can be applied at the beginning of the rainy season.

Weeding

The plot should be kept weed-free at all times. Care should be taken not to damage the shallow roots during weeding.

Irrigation

The plant cannot tolerate prolonged drought and should have sufficient water during dry periods. Supplemental irrigation during dry periods especially at peak growth is a must. Mulching is very beneficial in conserving moisture and also suppressing weeds.

Harvesting

Tree tomatoes are ready to harvest at 1½ to 2 years after planting when they develop red or yellow colour. It bears all year round with an average yield of 15-20 kg per tree annually giving 15-17 tonnes per hectare. The harvested fruits can keep for one week but under controlled storage it lasts for more than two months.

Pest and diseases

The major diseases of tree tomato are Tamarillo mosaic virus and powdery mildew while the major pests are whitefly, aphids and broad mites.

Aphids must be controlled as they are transmitters of viruses. They are naturally controlled by ladybirds or by use of insecticides such as cypermethrin. Broad mites will cause stunting of growing tips hence must be controlled by use of a miticide such as Abamectin.

Symptoms of Tamarillo mosaic virus are unsightly irregular blotches on the fruit skin which are a darker red than the normal skin colour for that cultivar. The control for Tamarillo mosaic virus is to remove severely infected trees and use of clean planting materials.


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