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March 31, 2010

Kenya sees growth in grapes output

by John Njagi

Kenya is set to emerge as a major grapes growing country after researchers unveiled a new chemical to improve temperatures for its farming.

Dormex (hydrogen cynamide) breaks dormancy, allowing the vines to form fruit as it offers the same effect as that of chilling winter weather in Europe, where grapes are widely grown.

Grapes require a combination of humid and cold cycles during its production stages, a condition that had it made it difficult for farmers in the tropics to venture into the crop.

Dormex, which was partly developed by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari), is now being touted as the ultimate solution to turning Kenya into a major producer in the continent.

Kenya is not famed as a grape grower, but shows signs of potential in areas like Yatta Plateau in Ukambani, where there is a farm run by the Kenya Wines Agencies Limited (Kwal). Other favourable grape regions are Kibwezi and Naivasha.

The lack of favourable weather has prompted Kwal to import most of its wine brands — hence denying the country an opportunity to create more employment and wealth.

Kari researcher Joseph Njuguna says farmers can tap into the highly lucrative crop by embracing the technology.

“Grapes are one of the most highly paying crops and if farmers are taught how to farm using the chemicals, they can benefit immensely,” he says.

A kilo of grapes sells at Sh400 at the supermarkets and has remained a preserve of the high-end market.

Kari distributes cuttings to farmers for planting and train them on tending the crop at the firm’s Thika research centre, said the Kari official.

Researchers say the effectiveness of the chemical were known during trial tests at a farm in Naivasha in 2005, where it was discovered the quality of the grapes from the farm were rivalling the imports from Europe.

“We discovered that the lack of favourable climate was not a reason to stop farmers from producing grapes,” says Mr Njuguna. There are table grapes, mostly found on supermarket shelves, and the wine types.

The Kari breakthrough comes at a time when the East Africa Breweries Limited (EABL) is mulling over plans to enter the wines market as it seeks fresh revenue streams.

The types grown locally include Dodrelabi, Muscat of Humburg, Golden Muscat, Office Vine and Muscat of Alexandria.

According to Mr Njuguna, grape farming is still at its formative stages but is slowly catching up as farmers think of improving fortunes.

“Farmers in these areas mostly grow mangoes but we have started campaigns to sensitise them that grape growing is more profitable,” he said.

There is a wide untapped market locally that is expected to provide a sizeable market even before it gains traction for exports.

Farmers have been urged to form cottage industries to manufacture wine, says the Kari official, adding the trend has taken root in Naivasha.

Business Daily Africa

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