Passion fruit has not lost lustre, from the colonial times to date

A farmer inspects passion fruits in his farm. Today, many smallholders in Kenya continue to grow passion fruits mostly for the export markets. The produce whose quantities have equally increased is bought, processed and exported by giant firms to European countries including Britain, France, Germany, Holland, and the United Arab Emirates. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The flower’s three prominent stigmata represented the three nails that held Jesus on the cross while the five anthers symbolised the wounds inflicted upon him: two on each hand, and two on the ankle and the spear wound on his side. 
  • The pink roundish base of the flower resembled the thorns with which Jesus was mockingly crowned while the tendrils hang out like the whip with which Jesus was further punished.
  • The colonial state did not consider fruit growing a major priority in the country’s agricultural development until the 1930s. 
  • All growers were required to register as its members. The board was charged with the responsibility of marketing passion fruit and juice. 

Of the fruits that were introduced in Kenya during the colonial period, passion fruit captured the attention of Europeans. 

Their fascination dates back to the sixteenth century following the Portuguese conquest of Brazil, the fruit’s cradle land. 

The Portuguese, who were ardent Christians, were quick to establish mystical connections between the fruit’s beautiful flower and Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and suffering, commonly known among Catholics as Christ’s Passion.

The flower’s three prominent stigmata represented the three nails that held Jesus on the cross while the five anthers symbolised the wounds inflicted upon him: two on each hand, and two on the ankle and the spear wound on his side. 

The pink roundish base of the flower resembled the thorns with which Jesus was mockingly crowned while the tendrils hang out like the whip with which Jesus was further punished.

Finally, the flower’s ten petals, apart from Peter and Judas, represented Jesus’ apostles.

One would have thus imagined that Europeans ought to have treated their conquered subjects more mercifully because of their faith in Christianity and belief in Christ’s Passion. 

Ironically, the Portuguese subjected Brazil’s indigenous communities to unprecedented brutality and exploitation. 

About three centuries later in Kenya, the British alienated to European settlers most of the highland areas with ample rainfall and soils, which were fertile and well-drained, for growing export crops.

The colonial state did not consider fruit growing a major priority in the country’s agricultural development until the 1930s. 

Passion Fruit Ordinance

Britain got fruit supplies from other sources. Meanwhile, European immigrants in Kenya either imported most of their fruit requirements or grew little orchards on their expansive farms. 

This changed during the Great Depression as European farmers were forced by the decline in the price of major commodities like maize and coffee to press their luck through diversification.

Passion fruit provided some hope. Its seeds and cuttings were imported but once planted, the vine grew to extraordinary lengths, produced many fruits within a year and continuously for the next three to four years.

Since the early 1930s, there were 56 European passion fruits growers. Prominent among them were E. N. Lanyon of Sotik, J. E. Wolryche-Whitmore of Rongai and others from Subukia, Njoro, Naivasha, Hoey’s (today Moi’s) Bridge and Lugari.

By 1936, they had planted 939 acres of the vines. They established small processing factories at Sotik, Lugari, Hoey’s Bridge and shortly later in Kitale.

The European passion fruit growers were part of the Fruit Growers Association.

They used this organisation to put pressure on the State and the Department of Agriculture to provide them with the necessary agronomic assistance and marketing facilities. 

In May 1937, the State promulgated the Passion Fruit Ordinance, which provided for the establishment of the Passion Control Board.

Conway Harvey, a European large-scale farmer and Legislative Council member for Nyanza, was appointed board chairman. 

All growers were required to register as its members. The board was charged with the responsibility of marketing passion fruit and juice. 

It liaised with the Department of Agriculture to investigate and put in place measures that would guarantee quality and combat the pests and diseases that affected the crop. 

Its membership increased to 91 in 1938 and discharged its responsibility through the Kenya Farmers’ Association.

Smallholders continue to grow passion fruits

In 1938, the total acreage under the crop increased to 1,126, which produced 58,000 gallons that were exported to Britain and her overseas possessions, including South Africa, India and New Zealand. 

The main problem was the attack of passion vines by woodiness, a strain of very stubborn viral disease. 

Its cure eluded plant entomologists and pathologists. Pests like aphids, mealy bugs, spider mites and nematodes, which attacked leaves and roots, were easier to deal with. 

By 1950, the only other place that held some promise for passion fruit was the Teita Hills.

Here, a private firm, the Teita Hills Concessions planted a sizable acreage and were planning to erect a fruit extracting plant. The Mau Mau revolt in 1952 scared away such investments. 

African interest in passion fruit growing commenced in the mid-1950s in Kericho district close to Sotik, among the Gusii around Nyansiongo (later part of a settlement scheme), among the Luyia and the Sabaot close to Mount Elgon, and the Kamba near Machakos. 

In 1958, 1,200 Africans grew passion fruits in what was then called North Nyanza and 300 others in Elgon Nyanza. The crop was also grown in Kiambu to feed the fruit canning plant in Thika.

In 1963, the director of agriculture reported that “the popularity of passion fruit juice has caught on and its production has increased …” 

But this was an overstatement. Some 7,560 gallons were exported while 865 gallons were sold in the local market. This was lower than quantities immediately before World War II. 

By this time, most European growers had left the country due to Kenya’s transition to independence.

Today, many smallholders continue to grow passion fruits mostly for the export markets. The produce whose quantities have equally increased is bought, processed and exported by giant firms to European countries including Britain, France, Germany, Holland, and the United Arab Emirates. 

Meanwhile the internal market remains largely unexploited and disorganised.

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