When George Wang’ombe Ndirangu and his wife Elizabeth Wang’ombe first ventured in tree tomato farming, they faced a myriad of challenges that almost killed their morale.
Challenges ranged from regular attacks by nematodes and fusarium and pests such as whiteflies and aphids on their fruits.
These together with the problems of having to regularly water and mulch their crop during dry spells led to poor yield, increased labour and high production cost which greatly lowered their profits.
But today, the problems are behind them. This is after the realization by the couple from Kangaita Village in Tetu Sub-county, Nyeri County that they could graft their fruit trees with a more resistant common shrub known as bitter leaf.
The shrub is also known as Muthakwa in Kikuyu, while its botanical name is Vernonia amygdalina.
Today, the couple’s grafted seedlings have become popular among farmers from within and outside the county.
Several years later, they smile all the way to the bank making an average of Sh300,000 per month from the sale of the grafted tree tomato seedlings alone in a nursery occupying less than a quarter acre.
On average, they sell over 3,000 grafted tree tomato seedlings in a month.
Their customers are from all over the country and sell a single seedling of the grafted tree for Sh100 per seedling while the ungrafted goes for only Sh50.
They have mainly stocked two varieties of tree tomato seedlings in the nursery which are Oratia red and Rothamer Red giant and currently have over 30,000 tree tomato seedlings in their nursery.
Their venture took a turn for the better in 2009 after a Senegalese paid them a visit at their farm and saw what they were going through and sold them the grafting idea.
“The Senegalese advised us to be grafting the ordinary tree tomato seedlings with a particular variety of the shrub as the two are from the same family,” notes 36-year-old Elizabeth.
According to Elizabeth, the variety bears fruits palatable to both human beings and birds while the fruits are also consumed by some Senegalese and people elsewhere in West Africa.
The plant has also been used to improve tree tomato production through grafting in countries like Senegal and other West African countries while the shrub’s leaves are used as vegetables and for medicinal purposes.
How to prolong the life of a tree tomato
Other than increasing yields, grafting also prolongs the tree’s lifespan from five to twelve productive years.
Elizabeth says: “Tree tomato ordinarily lacks a taproot but instead has fibrous shallow roots while the bitter leaf shrub has a tap root that goes deeper into the soil.”
“Therefore when grafted with the bitter leaf providing the rootstalk and tree tomato the scion, the result is a fruit tree with a tap root which enables it to absorb more water and nutrients deeper into the soil,” she expounds.
The tree resulting from the two tree species is also firm and strong making it resistant to destruction by strong wind or running rainwater.
It is resistant to drought and diseases and has enhanced production as opposed to the ordinary tree tomato plant which requires regular watering and mulching.
“The tree also bears bigger fruits with a longer shelf life than the ordinary plant and can do well in various climatic conditions as it is hardened,” she notes.
The fruit is also sweeter than its ungrafted counterpart and ideal for those keen on commercializing tree tomato farming as the fruit’s long shelf life also makes it ideal for export.
Leaves are also hardened and as such resistant to attack by whiteflies and aphids. It does not shed leaves during dry spells while the stalk is not prone to attack by nematodes and fusarium.
The couple also sell fruits fetching them between Sh70 to 130 a kilo in the market depending on the season. One needs about six to eight of the fruits to attain a kilo.
Under proper management, a single grafted plant, which produces fruits throughout the year, can produce at least 10 kilos of fruits a month which translates to 120 kilos in a year.
This means if sold at Sh70 a kilo, on the lower side, a farmer is capable of making Sh8,400 per tree per year.
Assuming that a farmer plants 100 tree tomato plants and harvests a minimum of 10 kilos per tree in a month and sold at a minimum of Sh70 a kilo, one is capable of fetching a clean Sh70,000 in a month.
During planting, she advises, a farmer should dig a hole of about 1.5 by 1.5 feet; apply a spade of well-decomposed compost or farmyard manure and fertilizer properly mixed with topsoil and put into the hole before planting.
With good care, the fruit tree flowers in three to four months after planting and can start being harvested in the sixth or seventh month depending on the climatic conditions of the region.
Through the project, they have managed to build a house, buy six dairy cows and built a good housing structure for their livestock, started a poultry project and bought two plots and a piece of land in Laikipia. They also acquired a vehicle which they use to offer free transport to their customers who buy seedlings in bulk.
“We also use the proceeds to pay school fees for our three children with one in secondary school and two in private primary school,” she notes.
The family has also managed to create employment for over a dozen women who work for six days a week with each one of them earning Sh300 per day for the last four years.
“Whenever we sell seedlings to a farmer, we follow up on their progress for three months until they start flowering and replace any that dries up within this period at no cost,” she adds.