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The wonder that is Joyland Farms

 Mzee Peter Mkwaka-Joyland Farms, a multi-million shillings citrus fruits and mango farm in Makueni County. [David Gichuru, Standard]

Comping through the 37-acre Joyland Farms is like an adventure, a total contrast to the picture that has always been painted about the semi-arid vast county of Makueni. They call it the modern-day garden of Eden, a hidden paradise that has made the hilly Muthyoi village famous.

For the last 50 years, this is what Mzee Peter Mwaka, 75, put his all in. It is a wonderland of tens of species of citrus fruits, a bliss of mango trees and an arcadia of beehives all set on a commercial scale. It is a virgin land where water springs flow freely from the rocky hills breathing life into the canopy of indigenous trees. In this ensemble, Mwaka has struck a goldmine, a multi-million shillings empire that has become the envy of all.

With mangoes being all the rage this season our attention is drawn to Joyland Farms where clients have been streaming in for major export buys. On this day Mwaka, two of his sons Steve and Pascal and the farm's agronomist Eric Kyama are ready to set us on a farm tour. Never mind the scorching sun, wading through this expansive farm is an anxious joyous adventure; like mopping through and endless maze.

 [David Gichuru, Standard]

Streams of water are directed from the water sources to the flooded basins of each tree as workers weed and apply pest control management practices. Here, everything works so mechanically in synchrony.

"Some of the trees you are seeing here are 48 years old, older than all of you. On the citrus family, we have Washington novel, minneola and the common one which is a pixie," Mwaka notes, informing that the firm has over 4,500 citrus trees, all aged for different fruit maturing seasons throughout the year.

Mwaka was a teacher. A son of a church elder and a military mien, he picked up traditional farming skills from his father before converting them into commercial farming. He recalls how the predominant crop back then used to be maize, beans and peas and how he would marshal everyone to the farm at 3 am. Back then, District Agricultural Extension Officers approached him with the view of collaborating with him and using part of the farm as their research centre. He obliged and soon, Joyland Farms became the demonstration centre where agricultural officers would teach locals the best farming options.

"We started off with 2 acres that we put into citrus farming as the officers introduced citrus seeds. They trained me on how to do pecking and assured me that in three to four years I would be earning more money than I had ever thought. I went into 600 citrus trees at once and after that people started visiting the farm as it had now become the model site both as a seedlings source and a farming plantation. Back then, District Agricultural Extension Officers used to do a lot of work, educating people and growing agriculture. They were so important. We don't see them anymore," he notes.

"I was a good, attentive teachable farmer and they found it easy working with me. I learned a lot from them and with time managed to convert from traditional farming as I embraced modern ways. Putting more focus into farming meant that I would give it my all and after 37 years in a teaching career, come 2010 I decided to resign and focus on the farm. I became a good role model all over Makueni as I became the first farmer to be Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified agent," he explains.

That year alone, Mwaka says he surprisingly made more money than all he had in his long teaching career.

 [David Gichuru, Standard]

According to the agronomist Eric Kyama, it takes a lot of professionalism and dedication for a commercial farmer to realize full benefits from his undertaking. Kyama says as a business, one has to factor climatically issues and learn good agricultural practices before going into farming.

"This terrain is sunny throughout the year. The soil type is sandy-loom. It is also a low-altitude area. Citrus fruits and mangoes thrive well under this climate as the climate is what determines the amount of sugar a fruit has, which is key for fruit quality. The ecosystem which is birds and bees is good for pollination. The farm does not rely on rain as we have water storage as well as pumped water from the water reservoirs. That makes it easy to manage our farm year," quips Kyama.

Currently, Kyama notes that each of the over 2000 mango trees is estimated to yield 1200 pieces a season. During the prime June to September season, the farm produces about 70 tonnes of pixie fruit alone. He says that rather than applying fertilizer, they have adopted the use of organic farm yard manure, which is also good in retaining moisture.

"Mangoes and citrus fruits have specific maturing time and it is good for a farmer to know how to ensure good picking time - to the market. Export quality is key for the bigger market and it is recommended that the produce gets to the market about three days before the ripening (consumption) date," Kyama remarks.

Steve and Pascal have taken up the farming business and are more involved in creating strategy on how to better the business and take it to the next level. They have also been opening the business to new markets even as they plan to start processing fruits and packaging as they leverage on the profits that come with finished products.

On a daily basis, their Toyota Hillux pick-up is on the road ferrying tones of mangoes and citrus fruits mostly to their Nairobi clients - majority of whom are grocery stores and fresh juice producers in major cities and towns among them Nairobi and Mombasa. With one trip approximately being 1500 kilograms and each going for about Sh200, it can only be left to one's imagination on how much this business can wreck in in one season.

"We have been promoting agricultural tourism as we empower and educate communities. We have also been benchmarking mostly in South Africa and in the US on modern farming trends and how we can keep on improving. Also, we are working on creating better infrastructure and adding more self-value from the products. In the future, we plan on making end products here," asserts Steve.

"If you are passionate about something, give it a shot. Mzee has always been passionate about farming and through this he has been able to educate us and pass the knowledge over to us and that is why we have embraced it seriously. We have been able to create jobs and support livelihoods both in our community and far beyond," Pascal affirms.

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