‘King of dragon fruit’ strikes gold

Antony Mugambi attends to a dragon fruit plant on his farm in Kathura village, Central Imenti constituency in Meru County. According to him, the dragon fruit plant, also known climbing cactus, requires little water and well-manured soils. PHOTO | CHARLES WANYORO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Antony Mugambi, an ICT engineer, has clinched the formula for harvesting wealth from the super fruit that he grows on five of his 40 acres in Central Imenti, a semi-arid region in Meru County. A kilo of the produce, comprising only three fruits, goes for a cool Sh1,000
  • He started the project with the seeds he extracted from the fruits a friend offered him. 
  • According to him, the dragon fruit plant, also known climbing cactus, requires little water and well-manured soils.
  • Dr Gladys Mugambi, a nutritionist and the Head of Division of Health Promotion at the Ministry of Health, says from available literature, the fruit has many benefits but we they have not done an analysis of them in Kenya. 

From afar, the hundreds of plants on Antony Mugambi’s farm in Kathura village, Central Imenti constituency in Meru County, look like cacti or aloe vera, only that they are much taller.

And like roses, they produce beautiful pink flowers, which later turn into a fruit surrounded by green spikes.

These are dragon fruits (Hylocereus undatus) and Mugambi grows some 2,000 plants on five of his 40-acre farm.

The rest of the farm hosts some cocoa and apple trees, maize and fish ponds.

“I fell in love with the dragon fruit in 2015 after a friend offered me a piece to consume. When I cut it, the inside was so fleshy and had black seeds,” recounts the 50-year-old, who can be described as the “king of dragon fruits”.

He took a bite and the taste was unique, recalls the information and communications technology engineer, who runs a firm in Nairobi.

“I could only relate the taste to that of strawberry or watermelon. I took home a piece of the fruit and that is where my dalliance with dragon fruit began.”

He later researched on the fruit and learnt that it comes in two varieties, yellow and pink, and that it is rich in protein, carbohydrates, fibre, sugars, vitamin A and C, iron and magnesium and grows well in arid and semi-arid areas.

“My farm is in a semi-arid area, which gave me the motivation to farm the fruit,” says Mugambi of the fruit that is also known as pitaya and originates from Southern America.

Plan for the market

He started the project with the seeds he extracted from the fruits a friend offered him. 

He later bought others from Nakumatt supermarket (now defunct) to plant more, spending some Sh5,000 on the venture.

The 100 seeds he planted took four years to mature. But, according to him, the plant can grow faster if vines are used in propagation, a route he took to hit the 2,000 plants

The vines harvested from plants grown from seeds take about nine months to produce a fruit

“I have since harvested four times. The first time I did, I only got one fruit, then the number rose to 10, then 30 and to more than 100 this year.”

Mugambi displays a mature dragon fruit in his farm in Meru County. The fruit can be consumed raw or used in value addition to make fruit bars, ice cream, juice, pastries and yoghurt. PHOTO | CHARLES WANYORO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

One of the things he likes about the plant is that it is very predictable in terms of maturity and processes.

“You'll see a fruit bud emerge, then after 13 or 14 days, it will open into a flower. On day 15, you either have a pollinated flower or not. After 37 days, your fruit is ready for harvesting and that way, you are able to plan for the market,” he says, adding he is harvesting from 500 trees and each produces about 20 fruits annually, which are harvested using a clipper.

Mugambi sells the produce locally and demand is insatiable. “There are people who now book the fruits even before the harvesting day. I sell a kilo, made up of two or three fruits for Sh1,000. I market them by word of mouth and then there are also referrals.”

Pheromone traps

According to him, the dragon fruit plant, also known climbing cactus, requires little water and well-manured soils.

“I use compost manure because I am focused on organic farming,” he tells the Seeds of gold.

“After every three months, I have to feed the 2,000 plants with compost manure. It costs me around Sh500 for each. I also prune and support the plants,” he adds.

Like other fruits, they are attacked by fruit flies, which he controls using pheromone traps.

Besides selling the fruits, he sells the vines at Sh500 each.  “I have people who come for farm visits and after seeing that the dragon fruit does well in dry areas, they buy the vines to plant on their farms.”

The fruit can be consumed raw or used in value addition to make fruit bars, ice cream, juice, pastries and yoghurt. 

The juice drawn from the red variety can be used as a natural food colourant and dye.

“I believe this is the future of fruit farming in dry-lands like ours. I am working on increasing the acreage and encourage other farmers to go into this type of planting.”

Dr Gladys Mugambi, a nutritionist and the Head of Division of Health Promotion at the Ministry of Health, says from available literature, the fruit has many benefits but we they have not done an analysis of them in Kenya. 

“We have a food consumption table and dragon fruit is not in it,”she says.

Carol Mutua of the department of crops, horticulture and soils at Egerton University says the crop has a great potential in semi-arid and arid areas in Kenya.

“Dragon fruit can do well in some parts of the country but most farmers are not aware of the fruit. I remember there was a time it retailed in Kenya for more than Sh2,000 a kilo. It has a ready market locally and internationally.”

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Benefits

  1. Dragon fruit has many health benefits. It is rich in antioxidants, which protect your cells from damage by free radicals. It is also rich in fiber.
  2. The fruit encourages the growth of some bacteria, ‘Probiotics lactobacilli’ and ‘bifidobacteria’, which help destroy disease-causing bacteria and viruses while aiding in food digestion.
  3. It makes for a good snack because it keeps one full for longer between meals.
  4. It helps lower blood sugar as research shows it helps replace damaged cells in the pancreas, which makes insulin.

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