When sold as fresh produce, a 40-kilo bunch which can make 4 kilos of banana flour fetches at most Sh200, but when ground into flour, it can fetch up to Sh1,800
Medium-sized banana plantations line up the 3-kilometre stretch from Kamwangi town to Mundia Farm along Thika-Naivasha highway.
Their leaves have wide yellow patches and dry edges as a result of the long absence of rains that most regions experienced. The plants also have distinctly tall and slender trunks on which few bunches of bananas hang. The fruits are smaller compared to an average banana.
Charles Mundia, an agripreneur who specialises in value adding bananas, avocados, sweet potatoes among other farm produce says the biggest challenge for farmers in Gatundu is finding market for their bananas which are smaller than those coming from Kisii, Nyeri and other places that he says have enough water.
An average bunch of bananas fetches a paltry Sh200 at Kamwangi market. Smaller bananas are treated as rejects and sold off at throw away prices.
This challenge prompted Mundia to start value addition on bananas in 2016 when he discovered he was making less from selling fresh fruits from the farm.
“I started making flour from banana rejects that people refused to buy because they were small. The good thing with value addition is that the machines don’t know that a banana is small. In value addition there are no rejects,” says Mundia.
Today, Mundia runs the farm alongside Bamboo hotel where he sells healthy meals made from value added products. The hotel is famed for its porridge made from a flour mixture of cassava, bananas, sweet potatoes and mulberry leaf powder. It is sweetened with honey.
When sold as fresh produce, a 40-kilo bunch which can make 4 kilos of banana flour fetches at most Sh200. But if ground into flour, it can fetch up to Sh1,800. A kilo of banana flour goes at Sh450.
But bananas weren’t Mundia’s first stint in value addition.
The retired civil servant first ventured into value addition in 2010 after visiting Wambugu Farm, a demo farm in Nyeri where he first saw a solar drier. Thrilled by the driers, he says he decided to make a similar structure back at home.
Mundia didn’t require any expertise to put up the structure. Armed with wood, rolls of special plastic and a few other materials he bought in Naivasha, Mundia put up a solar drier that can dry over 600 kilos of bananas, avocados, sweet potatoes and other farm produce at varied intervals. At seven days, bananas take the longest to dry while cassavas dry in three days.
“I didn’t have any knowledge about solar driers before. All I needed was to observe keenly the structure at Wambugu farm and I went and replicated the same at my farm,” he says.
The structure is complete with a white solar tent, a black paper foil covering the whole floor and the drying chamber which is a system of wooden racks.
The black paper absorbs light and turns it into heat energy. It also absorbs heat and stores it. The white ceiling traps the heat inside the heating chamber so that it continues heating the fruits even when conditions outside are humid.
The structure has an opening that allows fresh air to pass through the drying materials. This air is also heated to facilitate the drying process.
Finally, the structure is open at the top to let out moist air and prevent dampening on the drying materials which can in turn allow for rotting.
It is a cheap process, requiring less labour and which can easily be done by small scale farmers to avoid post-harvest losses due to lack of market.
Additionally, it is less costly as it doesn’t require firewood, as opposed to the steam drier, which Mundia had at the farm last year.
The steam drier which went for Sh2.6 million was mounted at the farm by a popular company that specialises in farm machines. It was a few months of trial during which the company sought to assess the machine’s feasibility in value addition.
He says the drier was labour intensive and required many people to operate.
First, there were men whose job was to cut firewood that was fed into the drier. There were also two men who sat at the fireplace the whole day and constantly fed wood into the drier to ensure water was constantly heated to provide steam for the drying process.
Finally, there were women who sat outside the structure and continuously chopped bananas, sweet potatoes, cassavas and pumpkins into small sizes that were fed into the drier.
Mundia confesses it was a tiring and expensive process. When the company approached him two months later to assess his experience with the drier, he was willing to let the machine go and go back to his solar drier.
“The steam drier wasn’t meant for me. I don’t think it is meant for small scale farmers because it is expensive to operate. It consumed a lot of firewood and labour,” says Mr Mundia.
But the biggest shortcoming of the solar drier, Mundia says, is that it takes longer to dry especially on rainy and cold days.
“The good thing with a steam drier is that you can use it even when it is raining, unlike with the solar one. But I recommend starters to use the solar drier,” he says.