Retailing at between Ksh1,000 and Ksh2,000 per kilo, the Dragon Fruit has been attracting interest from numerous people, many shocked at what this pinkish, leathery, spiky fruit, born of the cactus family of plants contains that can justify its exorbitant price!
The Smart Farmer team met up with with Dr Freddie Acosta, a senior lecturer in Technology & Innovation Management at Strathmore Business School, Strathmore University, Nairobi, who has been growing the fruit for the last nine years.
An avid organic farmer when not lecturing his students, Dr Acosta kept us mesmerized with interesting tidbits about the Dragon Fruit.
“It is a fantastic fruit loaded with nutrients and delicious to a fault. It does present a great opportunity to mint money for Kenyan farmers,” he said.
The lecturer has dedicated a tiny 30m2 portion of his urban residential estate home, located in the Mbagathi neighbourhood, to his farming venture. Right from the gate, numerous crops dot the compound, with the majestic Dragon Fruits lined along one side of his perimeter wall.
Also referred to as Pitaya, the crop, which originated from South and Central America, comes from the cactus species known as Hylocereus cactus.
There are four varieties. Three are pinkskinned with different coloured flesh on the inside that can be white, purple, or red. The fourth is a tinier and sweeter rare yellow-skinned hybrid variety with white flesh. This variety is popular in the Philippines.
Dr Acosta’s backyard is filled with the white and red varieties planted in plastic containers and drums with perforated bottoms. Pots work just as well as an open field.
“I sell the dragon fruit and cuttings as well as offer consultancy services to farmers growing the crop,’’ he adds.
According to him, the Pitaya, which thrives in tropical climates, requires attention and care for optimal production. It also does well under semi-arid conditions.
Kenya’s location on the Equator is great for the plant, which needs adequate sunlight throughout the year. Ideal temperatures range between 15°C and 35°C.
A single fruit can weigh between 500 grams and 1.2 kilogrammes with each kilo retailing at between Ksh1,000 and Ksh2,000.
’’I imported some cuttings from the Philippines and propagated them. The cuttings are in demand across East Africa and each sells for Ksh500. From a 30m2 plot you can make about Ksh55,000 monthly,’’ he says.
Where else is this fruit grown?
The fruit grows in the Philippines and Vietnam, which grows on about 36,000 hectares, making her one of the largest producers.
About 90 per cent of her produce is exported to China. Other markets are the UK, Hong Kong, Australia, and North
America. In Kenya, its demand is on the rise, driven by the growing interest in eating healthy.
“I have been approached by local clients to deliver two tonnes every week,” Dr Acosta adds.
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As an Investment
The fruit is perfect for long-term investment, because of its long life span of 20 to 30 years.
The dragon fruit’s season in Kenya runs from November to May with January, February, March and April being at the peak.
He first grew the Dragon Fruit in 2015, when there was very little interest in the crop. However, this changed when he sold his first harvest to a client in Meru, who dug into the business idea, investing the fruit on his five-acre farm.
The Strathmore University don recently sold cuttings in Makuyu, Murang’a County to someone who stands to become one of the largest growers in Kenya.
He sold others to a farmer in Kitui who now grows the fruit on five acres and Naivasha on 10 acres, Malindi, Uganda, and Tanzania.
Seeds take five to six years to start fruiting but cuttings, are preferred because they start fruiting in 12 to 18 months, depending on the age of the cutting. Dragon Fruits grow upto 30 metres in height.
Therefore, you should get some poles to support your crop. Because its weight increases tremendously, your poles should measure 4×4 inches if they are concrete posts, or 5×5 inches for the wooden ones. Train your crop to achieve and maintain an ideal height of five feet.
Place your poles three metres apart, to allow for easy mobility during maintenance. Use each post to support two plants, which should be planted two metres apart.
Mixing your soil:
The soil mix you choose for your crops is important as it increases your chances of harvesting a highly flavoured Dragon Fruit.
For Dr. Acosta, a mix of red soil with wood chips, biofertiliser from rabbit droppings and earthworms and black soil rich in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous has always worked.
Water your plants once or twice a week to avoiding logging the roots which may lead to rotting of the plant.
After a while you will see the shallow roots on your container’s soil surface and also the aerial roots which form directly on top of your planting container or soil surface, enabling the pitaya plant to climb to higher heights by attaching to branches and trunks of other trees.
Dr Acosta harvests Azolla and Duckweed (green small aquatic plants that rapidly grow and can float on water masses) and applies them as biofertilisers for his plants before and after the fruiting season.
They enhance flowering, boost nitrogen levels, and increase the shelf life of fruits to two weeks after harvest. Azolla has 30 percent nitrogen compared to Duckweed’s 40 per cent.
Flowers initially form as buds then undergo flowering and pollination. After four weeks, the flower blooms in the evening and withers immediately.
During this period, the crop requires eight hours of sunlight daily. It is worth noting that the flowers open between 7pm and 8pm, and by 8am, the flower closes. This provides a very short window for the bees to pollinate the flower. Therefore, to reduce missed pollinations, hand pollination can be done.
Dr Acosta has improvised a feather pollinator as an alternative to natural pollination, which, he says, works quite well.
Use the feather/ brush to transfer pollen from the stamens (Green is the male flower part) to the stigmas (Yellow is the female flower part) inside the flowers. Thereafter the pollinated flowers form fruits.
You can also trigger flowering by tipping (partially slicing the leaf edges or tips for it to bleed) which stresses the plant. If successful, you will see some molds and buds which will signify that flowering is about to happen.
The fruit emerges from the flower and matures after 35 days. It is surrounded by razor-sharp thorns that protect it from preying animals.
Other important practices.
Grafting different varieties hastens the fruiting period and improves the taste of the fruit. Prune after fruiting season (April/ May) using disinfected specialised pair of scissors known as secateurs and use the prunnings to prepare cuttings.
Pest and diseases
The dragon fruit is rarely attacked by pests. It is, however, prone to fungal infections, which attack the leaves, trunk, and roots.
They result when excess rainwater logs around the roots.
Harvest your fruit once the green colour starts turning red by gently twisting the stalk until it snaps. A healthy fruit weighs 500 grams and is characterised by the sweetness.
The level of sweetness in a fruit can be tested using a portable gadget called a Brix refractometer. It measures the sucrose (sugariness) content from a dragon fruit sample.
The higher the reading, the sweeter the fruit.
After harvesting, It is worth noting that the dragon fruit peel changes in colour but the taste does not change hence you must harvest the fruit only when it is ripe.
Depending on factors like crop nutrients, weather conditions and soil properties, mature plants optimally produce 30 to 100 Dragon Fruits by their third year of fruiting. Every part of the plant can be used.
The fruits are used to make wine, juices, smoothies and to flavour yogurts. The roots, flowers and peels make wonderful herbal tea, while the stem is used to make bathing soap.
How to consume it
Cut the fruit down the middle and scoop out the flesh, which is dotted with tiny edible black seeds, using a spoon. You can also blend it with other fruits to make exciting cocktails.
Storing the fruit
The fruit can remain fresh for a few days at room temperature. However, cut fruit should be refrigerated in a tightly sealed container or airtight bags or paper (cling film). If the flesh of refrigerated fruit starts turning brown, then it should be thrown.
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- Serves as an antioxidant for cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and constipation;
- Its calcium helps in bone rigidity and formation;
- You can make vinegar, wine, jam, yogurt, ice cream, herbal tea, and bathing soap;
- Adds aesthetic value to the environment and enhances biodiversity;
- It is high in vitamins, minerals, and fibre which boost immunity and improve digestion.
According to Dr Acosta, the future looks bright for the Dragon fruit. He believes that the Bonsai Dragon Fruit, currently under research, may be the next big variety of the crop.
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