Hundreds of yellow berries huddled together on what looks like coconut trees are a sight to behold on the farm in Masongaleni, Makueni Country.
The puzzle for first timers, however, is that the fruits resemble loquats, save for the trees.
These are dates, grown by Ramesh Gorasia on the 400-acre farm named Kutch-Kibwezi.
The farm is also home to oranges, tangarines, grapefruits, bananas, mangoes, watermelons, maize, cassava, tomatoes, onions, green grams, pigeon peas, brinjals and okra.
However, it is the date palms that stand out, occupying a huge chunk of the farm.
“We have 772 mature date palms and 1,200 young ones. Our main specialty is fresh dates, which we grow for sale both locally and abroad,” says Gorasia.
The farmer, who also has interests in real estate, tells Seeds of Gold he bought the orchard from an Indian family over a year ago to continue a tradition he started in India.
“I have other similar farms in India,” he says, explaining that he named the farm after the Kutch District in Gujarat State in Western India. “But this is the largest farm in my business and the one where I grow fresh dates.”
As one walks across the farm, the whistling of the palms as the winds blow from the picturesque Yatta Plateau is not only soothing, but also mind-blowing.
Dates are propagated from suckers, which are harvested from mature palms and transplanted in pits measuring 3x3x3 feet.
“The pits are covered using top soil mixed with manure and the plants mulched. The young date palms are watered at least once every week until they are about six years when they start producing. At this stage, they are only watered when they start flowering,” says Joshua Kithuku, the farm manager.
PRONE TO DISEASES
He explains that when it comes to dates, watering and pollination is crucial, with the later facilitated by human. “At the flowering stage, we pick pollen from male date palms and deposit it in the flowers of female plants.”
As they bloom, male palms produce larger flowers compared to female palms helping one differentiate the two.
“We cut flowers of the male palm, dust the pollen into plastic containers and then sprinkle them on flowers of the female palms,” says Kithuku, adding dates last 35 years.
Date palms are not prone to diseases, however fruit flies, birds and bats attack the fruits.
“We install traps to tame fruit flies. For bats and birds, we physically scare them away by hiring workers to do the job,” he says.
Harvesting of the crop is mainly done from March to May and this season, Gorasia says they are expecting 15 tonnes of dates, five tonnes more what the farm produced last year.
“We are among the few farms in the world that produce fresh dates from March to May and this enhances our global competitiveness,” says Gorasia, noting in the Middle Eastern countries like Israel, the produce is harvested around August.
His main market is in Nairobi and Mombasa where he sells the dates at Sh500 a kilo to Asians but some of the fruits find their way to markets in Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and in Asia.
“We deliver the dates to markets in Nairobi and Mombasa and sell them to exporters who know about our produce through referrals. We also sell directly to small-scale consumers locally,” says Kithuku, adding the fruits are eaten raw or can be processed and canned for longer storage.
According to Gorasia, Kutch-Kibwezi Farm grows the assortment of crops for diversity and to take care of running expenses, especially the salaries of its 120 workers drawn from the local community.
“All our crops are grown in such a way that they are harvested off season to fetch good prices,” says Gorasia.
“We grow some of the crops in the date plantations to enable the farmers give the palms the needed close attention especially during the flowering stage and maximise land usage.”
The sprawling orchard sources its water from the neighbouring River Athi.
“We use turbines to pump the water from the river into several dams on the farm before we use it for irrigation. The turbines help us to cut costs since use of generators would have demanded we spend money on diesel,” Gorasia explains.
Their main challenge is the invasion by wild animals from the neighbouring Tsavo East National Park.
“Whenever the volume of River Athi goes down, elephants cross from the park into the farm destroying bananas, dates and oranges while hippos damage green grams and watermelons,” says Kithuku.
In March last year, a herd of 25 elephants invaded the farm and destroyed dates worth millions of shillings, amongst other crops like maize and watermelons.
It took dozens of workers and neighbours to drive the animals away.
Every Sunday afternoon, the farm opens its door to children from Masongaleni community to eat the date fruits.
“We allow the children to eat the fruits and take some home,” says Kithuku.
“This is to maintain a good relationship with the community and part of our corporate social responsibility. It is a tradition we inherited from the previous owners.”
The Food and Agriculture Organisation notes that dates are one of the sweetest fruits in the world. Dates can be eaten fresh or dried and is rich in potassium, calcium and magnesium as well as vitamins A, B and K. They are also rich in carbohydrates.
Dr Simon Nguluu, the Dean, School of Agriculture at South Eastern Kenya University, says date farming remains untapped despite the huge potential of the industry in arid lands.
Presently, he says dates are especially consumed during the Muslim fasting months, adding that the market potential among other consumers remains huge.
“Dates farming also promotes the growth of related industries that go into adding value to the crop such as storage and packaging of the produce, thus creating employment in more ways.”
To tap into the potential of the dates industry, Dr Nguluu says, “Empirical evidence on the size of the market needs to be gathered.”
Dates thrive in dry places