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Grape farming is a gem waiting to be tapped

By Malaika Chunji
Sauvignon Blanc grape variety planted in Kenya. Grapes bear fruits twice every year. [Gardy Chacha/Standard]

If you have bought a packet of grapes from your fruit vendor recently, you must have bought it at between Sh250 and Sh300. This depends on where you shop but in most fruit stores and supermarkets, that’s the price range.

Most of the grapes sold in Kenya are imported from South Africa despite the country having potential to grow the crop. By 2016, the global consumption of fresh table grapes was estimated at 20.9 million tonnes, up from about 15.6 tonnes in 2009/2010. A similar trend is also shaping up in Kenya.

However, it is the wine and juice processing varieties that seem to have a higher demand in Kenya; where up to 90 per cent of the supply is imported; despite the country having some of the best conditions for its growth.

Grape farming in Kenya has the potential to create employment and wealth among Kenyan farmers’ especially young farmers ready to try something new.

Grapes’ growing is still in its formative stages even though there are grapevine orchards in different parts of Kenya that are more than 20 years old.

Meru is so far the leading producer of grapes in Kenya with Naivasha, Mandera, Kibwezi, and Mombasa also touted as best regions to grow the crop.

Notably, Kenya is considered one of the best places in the globe to grow grapes because of the cool climates. The warm days, cool nights, volcanic soils, as well as moderate rainfall in most parts of the country, provide optimum conditions to grow quality grapes.

Varieties

The crop is a woody perennial vine having the ability to live beyond 500 years. There are many grape varieties. They include French grapes (Vitis vinifera), American grapes (vitis labrusa) and Mediterranean grapes. The crop prefers warm to hot temperatures but during fruiting, the weather must be sunny and dry.

Warm environmental temperatures during fruit ripening is important as it increases the sugar content of berries while reducing their acidity. This explains why grapes grown under irrigation in hot deserts or semi-deserts are sweeter than those from cold humid areas. The crop can grow in any soil, from sandy to heavy clays but the soil should be deep and well-drained.

Where the rainfall is scant, farmers can supplement it with irrigation of 500mm of water during the cropping season. In Kenya, the cropping season is September to March.

Although grapevines are not plagued by as many diseases as common crops, the truth only extends to the type and quality of the planting materials that one uses.

If you are planning to venture into grape farming, you have to decide your target market first as prices and demand is also highly tied to the cultivar of grapevines. Table grapes, for instance, fetch the highest price as they are marketed to the high-end market segments while wine processing varieties only fetch between Sh80 and Sh150 per kg.

In the first couple of years, the vine should not be allowed to produce fruit as it needs to strengthen its root system before it can support the extra weight of fruit.

Pruning

Pruning is also an important aspect of grape farming as vines can run rampant without control. Pruning is better done annually when vines are dormant, in March or April.

Don’t be afraid to remove at least 90 per cent of the previous season’s growth. This will ensure a higher quality product. Remember, the more you prune, the more grapes you will have.

In the first year, cut back all buds and around two. Then, select a couple of strong canes and cut back the rest. Make sure the remaining canes are fastened to the support. In the second year, you should prune back all canes. Leave a couple of buds on each of the arms and ensure you remove flower clusters as they form. Using mulch is recommended to keep an even amount of moisture around the vines.

Smartharvest@standardmedia.co.ke    

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