At a two-acre maize plantation in Ikolomani, Kakamega, Dr Sylvester Anami, a lecturer at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) tends to two-year-old breadfruit plants.
There are 150 trees, sparsely planted in the maize plantation and measuring roughly half the height of the mature maize plants. The pruned plants have thick leaves that are deeply cut into pinnate lobes. For two years, Dr Anami has watched the plants’ slow-paced growth, which is the biggest drawback in growing breadfruit.
“Breadfruit takes long time to mature. These trees have been on my farm for two years but they look like they were planted last month,” he says.
But farmers in Bomet, Kilifi, Kitengela and Thika who planted the fruit some two years ago are optimistic that in about a year, they will start reaping benefits of the trees that take up to three years to mature. Other farmers were drawn from Kakamega, Vihiga, Kisii and Kitale.
Globalbreadfruit.com, a global platform that promotes planting and consumption of breadfruit says that a single breadfruit tree can feed a family of 4 for more than 50 years.
But researchers who attended last month’s conference on African indigenous vegetables and disappearing fruits were worried that breadfruit is one of the most underutilised fruits across Africa. The experts expressed concerns that the fruits remained unpopular despite their many benefits. Research indicates that consumption of underutilised fruits reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers.
Studies presented by Kenya Livestock and Agricultural Research (KALRO) at the conference that brought together experts from USAID, World Vegetable Centre, universities and other research institutions indicated that at 0.12mg, breadfruit had the highest amount of vitamin B1 ahead of mango, banana, pawpaw and even custard apple. Vitamin B1 is essential in metabolism and helps nerve, muscle and heart function. Common sources of vitamin B1 are whole grains, legumes and fish.
Kalro has listed guava, tree tomato, pomegranate, cape gooseberry, loquat, jack fruit and breadfruit among the most underutiliased fruit species in Kenya. Others include the melon, mulberry, dates and the baobab, also referred to as mbuyu.
At 33 per cent, bananas are the most consumed fruits in Kenya followed by mangoes at 22 per cent and pineapples at 18 per cent. Other fruits that are slightly popular among Kenyans are avocado, water melon, citrus and pawpaw.
But the KALRO survey highlights that consumption of temperate fruits is as low as 0 per cent. Temperate fruits include pear, plum, grapes and berries including breadfruit and jackfruit.
Dr Lusike Wasilwa, the Kalro director of crop systems, said increasing propagation and consumption of underutilised fruits will help conserve the environment.
“Promotion and commercialisation of underutilised fruit species will contribute to adaptation to climate change. As Kalro, we advocate for conservation through utilisation and urge people to plant trees that will give them fruits to eat and at the same time contribute to tree cover,” says Dr Wasilwa.
She found it disturbing that at independence, Kenya had 12 per cent tree cover but this had plunged to about 5 per cent.
Statistics indicate that there are 350,000 known plant species of which 100,000 are used by humankind. Some 80,000 of these plant species are edible while 7, 000 are used as food at local level. And of all the edible plant species, 30 provide up to 90 per cent of plant calories.
The researchers highlighted cases of the following underutilised fruit species in Kenya.
Breadfruit is, perhaps, the only fruit that can provide an alternative to wheat, hence the name ‘breadfruit’.
In Haiti, where breadfruit is a delicacy, the fruit is roasted and eaten as bread for breakfast. In fact, its starch yield is twice that of maize, wheat and other crops.
“With breadfruit, you can make anything that is made using wheat flour be it bread, mandazi, scones and even crisps. Breadfruit is the best-known alternative to wheat flour only it has additional benefits,” says Dr Anami.
JKuat has also made breadfruit vodka which the researcher says will provide a healthy alternative to local brew.
Dr Anami says breadfruit requires minimal care after it is established.
“In the beginning, you do a lot of irrigation and apply a lot of organic manure. But later, the tree doesn’t require any care at all,” he says, adding that unlike corn, breadfruit does not need to be replanted each year.
The lecturer who specialises in plant molecular biology and biotechnology at JKuat, says breadfruit plants can grow along other plants and crops.
“With breadfruit, we practice regenerative agroforestry that allows breadfruit trees to grow alongside other crops. This way, a farmer doesn’t need to set aside land just for the trees,” he says.
But all the benefits notwithstanding, Kenyan farmers are still skeptical about the fruit. Anami says during his promotion of the tree in 2016, farmers shunned the plant they said takes years before fruiting.
“I have met skeptical farmers who said they could not plant a tree that took years to start fruiting. Unfortunately, breadfruit takes up to four years from the time it is planted to start bearing fruits. But once it starts fruiting, it does so for decades,” he says.
He says many people haven’t heard of the fruit, underscoring the need for experts to create awareness. The Jkuat don has been working with Kalro to promote breadfruit in conferences and seminars and on digital platforms. Most farmers who planted the 5,000 seedlings made their requests on Digital Farmers Kenya, a Facebook page for farmers.
Jackfruit is related to breadfruit and also has high amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. The fruit is said to provide more than 3mg of proteins per cup.
Each jackfruit produces up to 20 fruits annually and each fruit weighs up to 35 kilogrammes. Statistics provided by Kalro indicate that some 3,200 jackfruit seedlings can be planted on 64 hectares of land, an equivalent of 70 trees per hectare. From the 64 hectares, a famer can make Sh3.2 million, an amount that increases by 50 per cent on value addition.
A project by Kalro to promote the consumption of jackfruit has seen the organisation plant some 30,000 trees in several counties in Western and Rift Valley.
This, Dr Lusike says will contribute to about 10 per cent of tree cover in the regions.
Dr Wasilwa says that guava, believed to have originated from South America is one of the most overlooked fruits in Kenya.
“Guavas have initially been thought as fruits to be fed on by birds or young children but they do offer a lot of health benefits as they are rich in antioxidants, vitamin C, potassium and fibre,” Says Dr Lusike.
Statistics provided by Kalro indicate that Eastern Province is the major producer of the drought-resistant fruit while North Eastern has the least production.
The guava plant is a small hardy tree growing up to 6-7 meters high. The fruit is a berry and may be round, ovoid or pear-shaped measuring 5-10cm long. It has a thin skin ranging in colour from pale yellow, whitish-yellow, yellowish-cream to greenish-yellow.
Of all fruits, guava has the highest amount of vitamins. At 688mg, guava has the highest amount of vitamin K followed by breadfruit at 551mg. This is way higher than the 159mg found in mango. Guava also takes a lead in phosphorus, and vitamins B1, B2 and C.
Grafted guava seedlings mature in only two years while ungrafted ones take up to four to start bearing fruits. It is estimated that the potential yield per guava tree is 40kg, from which a farmer makes up to Sh11 per kg. A farmer who has 20 trees can make up to Sh7,200 in a year, according to statistics provided by Kalro.
“Farmers who do value addition on guava by processing it into jam, juice jelly, cheese and sweets can increase their yields to 240,000 on 20 trees,” said Dr Wasilwa.
Wasilwa said efforts to promote propagation and consumption of guava were, however, thwarted by lack of superior varieties, limited knowledge in agronomic practices and limited postharvest practices.
In 2010, Kalro classified Cape gooseberry as the seventh most important underutilised fruit in Kenya.
It is believed to have been introduced in Kenya through birds that migrated from Europe and recently as imports by local supermarkets. It now grows as a wild fruit in forest areas of Mount Kenya, Mount Elgon, Timboroa and Kakamega.
The fruits, which have a high calcium content, are also found wildly distributed in the highlands of Kenya and have been sold on the roadside in the Rift Valley by youth since early 2000.
Between 2004 and 2006 Cape gooseberry was grown on large-scale in Kibwezi and the fruit was processed by Del Monte to make jam.
Cape gooseberry, goldenberry, or yellow berry was classified as one of the 100 crops selected for commercialisation in Kenya’s Big 4 Agenda.