Farmer makes a killing from rare cactus fruit
Sometime in 2013, Anthony Kinoti was offered a strange fruit to eat by a Chinese friend.
“Dragon fruit was sweet and soft. I had never seen nor tasted such a sweet fruit. It was amazing. It melted in the mouth like ice cream. I wanted to know more about it. Later, I did research on it and discovered more positive attributes,” he says.
That time, his friend also gave him the seeds which were like tiny pebbles and he planted them at his farm in Kathuure, Meru County.
He planted them on a small corner and forgot about them. Almost two years on, they started sprouting fruits and he started selling to family and neighbours.
“At first, they were not very receptive because they had never seen it before. But when they tasted its sweetness, they wanted more,” the 55-year-old farmer recalls.
Lucky for him, the neighbours loved the fruits and kept making more orders, with some making bookings way in advance. He took everything with caution because of a past nasty experience. Previously, he had grown a lot of grapes but lost money after the crops failed.
“The birds liked to eat the fruits leading to poor harvests,” he says.
So why the huge demand for the fruit? Kinoti says the dragon fruit is loved for its sweetness and numerous health benefits.
Brenda Kendi, a nutritionist says dragon fruit D is high in vitamin C and other antioxidants, which are good for your immune system. It makes for a good snack because it can help keep you full for longer between meals.
Researchers say this might be partly because it replaces damaged cells in your pancreas that make insulin, the hormone that helps your body break down sugar.
According to research in the World Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, these seeds contain fatty acids, including omega-3 and omega-9 fatty acids as well as natural oils. Additionally, it can be prepared into a range of products like juice, jam, sherbets, wines and syrup.
Perhaps these are the benefits that made Kinoti settle for it as a long-term project.
“The dragon fruit has great medicinal properties. When I discovered that, I increased the acreage to five.”
With a single fruit retailing at a minimum of Sh500 at selected supermarkets in major towns and cities, Kinoti plans to grow 10,000 trees.
The fruits are booked up to two months before they are harvested, which he does weekly. Though he and his eight workers at the farm are producing good amounts they cannot sustain the demand, “because not many farmers in Kenya are growing it.”
A single tree of the fruit can have as many as 20 branches and to support that Kinoti, has made a single concrete pole to support a tree, at Sh800 each.
“The dragon fruit is a climbing cactus. A single plant has up to 20 branches. One plant can produce up to 20 kilos a year. Because of the weight of fruits I have to support the tree with poles.”
He says: “There are six buds which sprout from a single branch, but I only leave two to three so that the remaining do not have to compete for nutrients.”
When he started predators like fruit fly and pests were a challenge.
Strategically, together with the dragon fruit, Kinoti has planted paw paw which are taller and meant to feed the birds which prey on the fruits.
Kinoti claims he makes up to Sh100,000 a week from the fruits and cannot meet demand. A section of his buyers collect the fruits from the farm’s store but he has to transport some orders via parcel transporters.
“Nothing of the fruit goes to waste, from the root, stem, seed and peels. They are used to make food colour, juice, wine, if you want to process, which is my dream,” he says.
Its long shelf life is another advantage.
“After it is cut it can stay up to two weeks without refrigeration, and up to three months when refrigerated.”
The dragon fruit is pricey because of its numerous health benefits and cost of production says Dr Jane Rutto, an Environmental Health lecturer at Meru University of Science and Technology.
Dr Rutto says the cost of materials when planting the climbing tree which involves a post of concrete or other support material, means the price has to be set in a matter that will enable a farmer break even.
A single concrete pole goes for Sh800 and is able to support a tree for decades.
“Then there is a tyre to support the dragon fruit trellis,” she says.
“The fruit is mostly found in high-end stores and even in other countries. The fruit, which is rare, is expensive because of its health benefits. Few farmers, including Antony Kinoti in Meru and another somewhere in Yatta, have embraced it,” she says.
Rutto has 50 dragon fruit trees in her farm in Eldoret and she wants to propagate seeds because she wants to go into the venture.
“It is a climate adaptive crop and does well in semi-arid areas. Maybe if its production increases, the price will come down,” says Rutto.
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