Hundreds of avocado trees stretch as far as the eye can see on the farm in Juja, Kiambu County, giving one a scenic view.
Most of the trees are sagging under the weight of the Hass avocado fruits and as farmer Grace Ngungi-Karanja, the owner, checks on them, she knows that the season is good.
“We will harvest them in a day’s time for the export market,” says Grace, who runs the farm in Karakuta, Juja. "They have done well because of the good agricultural practices we adhere to."
Besides the Hass variety that comprise 70 per cent of the fruits on the farm, Grace also grows Fuerte, which helps her harvest all the year round as the varieties mature at different times.
"I went into avocado farming in 2018 soon after resigning from an international agency where I worked as a programmes manager. My colleagues and friends thought I had made a mistake but time has proved me right," she offers.
She started with looking for information on farming avocados for the export market by visiting various large-scale farms.
“But some of them were not very helpful. They withheld crucial information on market and agronomy, which they considered a trade secret,” she says, adding that she attended international trade fairs in Italy and Germany to meet potential avocado buyers and get first-hand information about what kind of fruits they were looking for.
According to her, the buyers were receptive and told her the avocados from Kenya were good but their quality was lower for the export market.
“The buyers said a lot of immature and small-sized avocados were coming from Kenya. Such immature fruits never ripen but shrink and rot. In Europe, they were clear that they wanted mature avocados of size 12-18. This means that each avocado has to weigh between 306-211 grams,” she says.
Armed with the specifications, Grace returned to Kenya and founded the farm where she grows the fruits on large-scale.
Her initial capital was Sh3.6 million, money that went on12,000 seedlings that cost Sh300 each and paying workers to dig the holes..
She advocates for best practices on avocado farming, handling and quality through training of farmers from across East Africa.
"For best avocados, start with the soil test because you need to know the kind of fertilisers to use. Then buy certified seedlings that are about a year-old because they have a success rate of 99 percent. Otherwise, you may end up with retarded plants that will take over three years to break the dormancy or reach flowering stage,” she explains.
Most farmers, according to her, plant avocado seedlings in a similar way bananas are planted. Avocados, she offers, should be planted on well-drained raised beds to protect the roots from rotting.
"The raised bed helps the root system spread faster and the plant to experience vibrancy."
From six months to three years, she advises farmers to apply CAN fertiliser on the trees as well as NPK foliar, which has micro-elements needed for photosynthesis and vibrancy of the plant.
Nitrogen is important for vegetation, explains the farmer who grows the crop under drip irrigation, phosphate for roots and calcium for cell multiplication.
“Some plants usually exhibit signs of nutrient deficiency shown by yellow leaves. Healthy plants have dark green leaves. Such plants normally suffer from iron deficiency and application of a foliar spray that has iron levels is normally needed to revive them.”
The flowering stage is the most important for any farmer, according to her. “Flowering quality depends on the seedlings. The seedlings we plant flower after a year-and-a-half of transplanting. Just before the flowering stage that is called “early bud”, the plants need high energy and a balanced hormonal environment. One thus should focus on soil conditioners that enhance root development and apply quality foliar that offer boron and amino acids.”
And when the tree is over three years old, she tips farmers to feed the root system with phosphorus fertilisers and well-composted manure to enable the root system to easily absorb the minerals.
"The feeding of the roots must be done at the canopy area, which is where the root hairs that normally support the feeding are. Farmers should avoid applying fertilisers or manure at the stem since this is a waste as the tap root does not feed, only the rooting system that is spread across the canopy area,” she advises, adding that each tree that is over three years old needs seven buckets of manure.
For such trees, she adds, proper feeding of the leaves with the requisite micro-nutrients is important to give them energy to grow and support the processes of flowering and bearing fruits.
"It is critical to apply foliar that has zinc, iron and manganese to help hold the flowers and make them strong even after pollination has taken place. Such foliar also helps ensure flowers do not abort and makes the plant strong," says Grace, who employs 18 workers.
Calcium with a concentration of 15 per cent is also needed to help enhance cell multiplication for the production of healthier fruits. Lack of calcium results in smaller fruits that lack the necessary texture.
“When the fruits attain tennis ball size, your focus should be on ensuring you attain the correct size and quality. A foliar that is high in potassium (concentration above 35 per cent) which helps to improve the size, texture and quality of the fruit should be applied."
Through these practices, and several others, Grace meets the EU market standards.
After harvesting, proper handling and transportation of fruits is also key, as those with bruises are not accepted. The fruits should be carried in crates.
Grace, who currently exports the fruits through an agent but she is working on exporting directly, terms avocado farming as a lucrative venture as a kilo of Hass avocado fetches up to £4 (Sh580) in the EU market.
She lists high electricity bills as one of her major challenges as she uses electric power to pump water to irrigate the farm.
"The volatility of the international market is another major setback for farmers like her, with the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war being a major undoing as Russia is a major market."
Theft of fruits, she says, is another challenge that she is grappling with, noting that she loses an average of two tonnes of fruits to thieves every season.
Last year, Grace was awarded by the Avocado Society of Kenya as the outstanding Woman of the Year farmer for sharing knowledge on avocado growing through the monthly training she holds.
Tharaka-Nithi County and USAID have also awarded her for being an inspiring female avocado farmer.
"My goal is to train as many farmers as possible and then contract them so that I can export in bulk."
Muchui Maingi, a researcher and market developer based in Germany, notes that what is making Kenya lose in the EU market is farmers using a lot of short cuts as they try to cash in on increased demand.
"There is a need for farmers to get proper training on what is exactly required in the international market."
Kenya is one of the leading exporters of avocados in Africa; in 2020 shipping 70 million kilos valued at Sh14 billion to the international market. Murang’a County accounts for 31 per cent of total production in Kenya. The value of avocado exports in 2021 hit 85 million kilos worth Sh14.4 billion.