How we built strawberry export empire
It is one of those rainy days in the quiet Ol Jororok village in Nyandarua County.
The afternoon showers seem to have brought things to a standstill, except in Kenneth Kinuthia’s homestead. Close to 70 workers are sorting out and packaging strawberries. A van is waiting for the packaged fresh strawberries and jam for export to Kampala.
“It is has been a busy day but we are almost done with the packaging. Several orders have been delivered to Nyahururu, Nakuru, Eldoret and Kisumu in the morning and the last deliveries are slotted for Kampala,” Kinuthia, the farm owner says.
Roses and thorns
Kinuthia and his wife Beth have been at this strawberry business for three years and though business is now good, it’s been a journey of ups and downs.
Kinuthia and his wife ventured into strawberry farming after having a nasty experience with vegetables.
“We started our strawberry business by hawking in the streets of Nakuru and Nyahururu but we are now into export,” Mr Kinuthia says.
The business has overcome several challenges to be where it is.
Prior to venturing into farming, Kinuthia had lost his job then joined his wife in farming vegetables. However, the market was flooded with many sellers and most of the time they ended up with fresh produce which wasted away on the farms.
Kinuthia shares the journey: “I had just lost my job in late 2015 and instead of staying home, I decided to join my wife in farming. The vegetable business was however slow because we could not secure the market since the production was high. A friend hinted if I could try strawberries,” Mr Kinuthia says.
Seedlings from a friend
Although his friend gave him some strawberry seedlings which matured after five months, Kinuthia says securing the market was a big hurdle. This led to the produce rotting on the farm.
“It was a challenge because the locals were not familiar with the fruit. We almost gave up and even started feeding the produce to chicken and cattle to get rid of it. However, we decided to give it a try when we started hawking the fruits,” he recalls.
That was the turnaround they needed. Surprisingly, they were able to sell everything and got more orders.
Gradually, the couple expanded their market to the neighbouring bus termini and busy towns in Nakuru and Nyandarua Counties.
“Soon, we were supplying shops and were even able to employ a few sales personnel who assisted us in selling and marketing our products even as we engaged in planting more strawberry seedlings and researching on value addition on the Internet,” he says.
With the growing demand, the couple expanded the strawberry acreage from half an acre to two acres.
“The orders started streaming in and soon we started supplying the supermarkets both in Nyandarua and Nakuru. We also employed some people to help with picking the strawberries,” he says.
Early last year, the couple ventured in to large scale manufacture of strawberry jam known as KenBet farm Strawberry.
“The jam has boosted our sales. We have since been certified by Kenya Bureau of Standards. This mark of quality has given us the go ahead to manufacture and package our products for local market and for export,” Beth says.
Currently, the couple have planted strawberries on three and a half acres. Some of the produce is packaged and supplied to supermarkets in Mombasa, Nakuru, Eldoret, Kisumu, Nairobi and Kampala.
The jam, which is also locally produced is supplied to several supermarkets.
Strawberry farming has indeed turned around their fortunes.
Fruits of their labour
“Through strawberry farming, we have bought a vehicle fitted with coolers to help in transporting fresh strawberries and jams across Kenya and beyond. We have also bought a lorry, a personal car and built a house,” the wife says, adding that there were plans to expand the business to South Sudan and Rwanda this year.
The couple admits that though competition is stiff, adding value to their produce has seen them remain in business.
“... securing new markets is very competitive because of the imports from outside. However, we have managed to cut the niche through value-addition. The jam has many customers and sometimes we cannot meet the demand,” she says.
Planting and harvesting
Strawberries, she says, are picked three times a week and require constant monitoring and a lot of water to boost the production.
“We have since improved from manual watering to the use of sprinklers and drip irrigation to cut on costs. We use sprinklers on foggy days and drip some hours in a day. They are picked three times a week with an acre producing 6,000 panes per week. A pane is sold for Sh 300 in the local market,” she says.
The couple have employed 67 people who work daily within the farm and are paid every week.
“We have plans to increase the acreage and probably increase the number of workers in the farm too because strawberry farming is tasking,” she adds.