Dressed in light-blue overalls and black gumboots, Nimrod Mwenda carries four strawberry punnets and puts them in a container, ready for delivery to a customer.
The farmer, who grows the crop in Kimaogo village in Maara constituency, Tharaka-Nithi County, farms it on a quarter acre.
He started the venture in 2015 after quitting work at an export farm as a greenhouse manager.
“I gained a lot of agricultural knowledge, in particular, on strawberry farming,” says the 35-year-old, who holds a diploma in cooperative management.
“I opted to employ myself after realising I could earn more on my own rather than wait for the Sh40,000 I was being paid a month,” he says.
Armed with the secret of farming strawberry, the ambitious Mwenda bought 500 strawberry splits (seedlings) of the Chandler variety from a farm in Kiambu County.
He notes that while strawberry does well outdoors, in greenhouses they do much better.
“But I grow them in the open field where the soil should have a pH of between 5.5 to 6.5. They can be grown from seeds, or splits, which are the most preferred,” he says, adding the seedlings should be planted in holes deep enough to accommodate the entire root system of the crop at a spacing of 20 inches apart and four feet between rows.
He uses manure and DAP fertiliser during planting and later plastic-mulches them to curb weeds and preserve the much-needed moisture.
When he started out, his income was not pleasing but he did not give up because farming the crop was his hope. Later, he entered into a three-year contract with Jaickis Exporters, which bought his produce.
“At the same time I was hawking the fruits in Chogoria and Chuka towns and in supermarkets. I realised that the demand in supermarkets and hotels was high and the price was much better at Sh100 compared to what the exporter was offering, Sh80 a punnet,” he recounts, noting after the contract lapsed, he did not renew it.
For more than four years, Mwenda was one of the few farmers growing strawberry in Tharaka Nithi. But as he hawked his produce, many people got interested in the venture.
One of the farmers that Mwenda introduced to strawberry farming is Peterson Mwirigi, the current MCA for Ganga ward and the Majority Leader at the county assembly.
“He partnered with me and we have since trained more than 1,100 youths in Maara constituency. We have opened an office at Katharaka market along the Meru-Nairobi highway where hired boda boda riders to deliver the produce from at least 300 farms and we sell them in Nairobi and other towns,” says Mwenda, who makes up to Sh100,000 a month.
The other farmers, who work under their Global Welfare Families Farming Group, earn between Sh10,000 and Sh30,000, adds Mwenda, noting they have sought funding from the county government as they eye processing.
“This crop has so far employed many youths and more can get jobs if we start value addition,” says Mwirigi.
Mwirigi notes the crop has few pests but the farmer should be keen to keep off birds and thrips.
Strawberry takes about 70 days to mature and fruits are ready for harvesting four to six weeks after blossoming.
It has high demand in urban centres, supermarkets and factories that manufacture yoghurt.
Dr Geofrey Gathungu, the Dean, Faculty of Agriculture and Environmental Studies at Chuka University, says a strawberry farmer must plant the right variety for maximum production.
“For maximum production, a farmer must plant healthy seeds, water the crop well, control pest and weed, harvest the right time and handle the harvested fruits well,” explains Dr Gathungu.
He adds that a strawberry farmer must have a ready market to avoid losses because the fruits are highly perishable.