A papaya pilot project sparked through a partnership between a horticultural farmers group and a South African drinks company, has triggered the rise of a new fruit and market in Kapsabet district of Rift Valley, as farmers race to move into the new, fast maturing, disease resistant, dwarf papaya variety called the Red Royale papaya.
The Tapsigei Farmers Union had a two year painful courtship with papaya farming, characterized by incessant diseases and stunted growth of the traditional papaya.
But in February this year when Fizzle Fit Company, a soft drink making company from South Africa, pitched tent in the area looking for suppliers of raw papaya. Impressed by the number of farmers in the farmer group and their commitment to horticulture, the company introduced the farmers to a new hybrid papaya seed, which the farmers promptly adopted.
Eight months later, the farmer group has now exported their first batch of the Red Royale papaya to the South African firm, while also delivering fruit into the local market, to hospitals, hotels and supermarkets.
The farmers, now in their second trial, produced more than Fizzle Fit Company needed, but “just like it is with everything new, locals treated the fruit with suspicion especially due to its somehow reddish colour inside, which they considered strange. But we explained the benefits and even gave free samples for testing. When we next took it to the market, we not only cleared stock, but got numerous requests by customers to assist them with seeds,” said Dominic Rono, one of the members of the farm group.
This has seen the group now multiplying the seeds and packaging them in manageable quantities to sell to local farmers. “This is a revolutionary fruit and we are in the process of approaching the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service to certify our seeds as we plan to distribute them nationally,” he said.
The farm gate price of the Red Royale Papaya is Sh200 and Sh250 to large stores, and the huge appetite for the fruit has seen farmers restrategising to achieve a constant year-round supply. They have divided themselves into three groups with each group planting at a particular period of the month. Every farmer puts back 10 per cent of their earnings into the farmers group to assist fellow farmers with financial difficulties and save for a processor that the group hopes to buy in two years’ time.
The fruit processor will allow the farmers to make and package their own papaya juice as they anticipate the market for Red Royale Papaya will be saturated in a year’s time based on the brisk uptake of the seeds.
The group also plans to invest in value addition of the fruit by making salads, drinks, jam, jelly, marmalade, candies and crystallised fruits. “Right now we are selling the seeds at Sh50 for the smallest pack and that demand is very high. The locals have seen the benefits in terms of sales of the fruit and even as the pioneers in export what we have is not able to satisfy the local market,” said Miriam Cherono, the group’s secretary.
The Red Royale Papaya was first developed by Asia based seed breeder East West Seeds and is dwarf with some of its fruits being less than a foot above the ground, closely bunched, with no gaps between the fruits. On average one tree carries 20 fruits with a fruit weighing 2 to 2.5 kilos compared to ordinary papaya trees, which can hold on maximum 10 fruits. The peel of the fruit, unlike those of ordinary papayas, are usually mixed with the fruit in making the papaya juice and are known to preserve the juice for longer.
To mature from a seedling to the ripe fruits takes seven months compared to nine months for ordinary papayas. The tree has also demonstrated superior resistance to the notorious Papaya ring spot virus responsible for over 65 per cent of spoilt papayas in the farm.
A quarter of an acre can comfortable accommodate 30-40 of the papaya trees with the only meticulous attention needed when it’s a seedling. Once it germinates, it only requires water and does well in mulchy soils. Of the many commercial varieties of papaya grown in Kenya, only Red Royale has been reported to also have resistance to Phytophthora palmivora, an equally devastating Papaya disease.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter