Kenya has started greenhouse production of tomatoes, raising hopes that the popular vegetable will become available throughout the year at affordable prices.
In the new system developed by the Kenya Horticulture Development Programme (KHDP) and agricultural inputs suppliers Seminis Seeds and Osho Chemical Industries, a grower requires about 240 square metres of land and a greenhouse kit to get started.
The cheapest kit, comprising a 500 litre water tank, irrigation drip lines, plastic sheet, seeds and chemicals has been put at Ksh150,000 ($2,239) for those participating in the project. The plot of land can grow 1,000 plants.
The fourth demonstration site, for the Coast province, was launched last week at the Agricultural Training Centre in Mtwapa, Mombasa. Others are in Nairobi at the Horticultural Crops Development Authority compound near the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, at the Agricultural Training Centre, Kabiangi in Kericho, and at the Lake Basin Development Authority compound in Kisumu.
According to the KHDP, the greenhouse tomato project, one of the activities the programme is supporting to help increase the incomes of rural households, is borrowed from Israel, where the country has most of its agriculture under greenhouses due to scarcity of water and land. It is also widely practised in the United States.
If the concept is widely embraced, Kenya could start enjoying year-round supply of tomatoes, which currently get damaged during the wet seasons, pushing prices through the roof. According to Peter Randa, the marketing manager and project technical advisor, growing crops under greenhouses has many advantages, among them the ability to produce huge quantities on a small piece of land and continuous harvesting. The tomatoes have a shelf-life of 21 days compared with 14 for those grown in the open.
It takes a shorter period — two months — for greenhouse-produced tomatoes to mature, while it takes a minimum of three months with outdoor farming.
Due to controlled irrigation and temperatures, the crop sports a continuous output of flowers and fruits, all at different stages.
One plant has a potential of up to 15 kg at first harvest, going up to 60 kg by the time it has completed its full cycle — recommended at one year.
The plant vines are supported inside the greenhouse with sticks and strings, growing up to 50 metres in height. If well looked after, the minimum plot of land under greenhouse production can yield up to 25,000 tonnes of tomatoes.
Tomatoes are generally highly susceptible to diseases requiring heavy application of pesticides but under the greenhouse growing techniques, which come with basic training on hygiene, most of common infections are easily kept at bay. Also kept at bay are insects and other pests known to invade plants as well as weeds.
Apart from huge savings on crop protection chemicals, which constitute a huge part of production costs, less labour is employed in a greenhouse, while exposure to chemical toxins associated with application is minimised or eliminated altogether. It is also good for the environment.
Planting materials for the greenhouse tomato production have been specially developed as high yielding, although they can grow outdoors as well. For this programme, the partners are recommending the Annaf1 hybrid tomato seed developed by Seminis East Africa.
On its part, Osho Chemicals is providing free chemicals to farmers in the initial stages of planting as well as technical advice on application, said marketing manager James Ndabi.
The introduction of greenhouse tomatoes in Kenya heralds what could be a major shift from open pollinated farming to hybrid high yielding methods, which if adopted in other sectors could lead to massive improvements in crop production, output, incomes and ultimately self-sufficiency in food production.
According to Mr Randa, there has been a marked uptake of improved planting materials in the country, a sign that farmers are keen to adopt new products and technology.
In Eldoret, KHDP reports, greenhouse production of tomatoes is coming along fast since this is where the technology was first introduced. The horticulture programme, funded by the United States Agency for International Development, estimates that in the next five years, most tomatoes grown in Kenya will be under greenhouses.
Mombasa is seen as having a huge potential for the technique since the Coast province imports more than 75 per cent of its food from upcountry and Tanzania.