Fridah Mbai places trays of peeled mangoes on a chamber of one long steel rack where they are dried by steam energy before being sold.
Mrs Mbai, a mother of eight, is a mango farmer at Kambiti village in Murang’a County, about 70 kilometres from Nairobi.
About five years ago, Mrs Mbai, 66, joined hands with fellow small-scale farmers in the area and started Kambiti East Mango Growers self-help group in order to market their fruits better.
For many mango farmers here, like in other parts of the country, pests known as fruit flies and the lack of a reliable market, was causing them big losses.
“Because there is no ready market, I used to hawk my mango fruits at the nearest market and bus stops but I would return home with very little money since mangoes were all over,” explains Mrs Mbai who now has 60 mango trees.
Agriculture ministry estimates that between 30 and 50 percent of the fruit in Kenya go to waste due to lack of proper post-harvest management technologies.
During harvest season, the mango growing areas experience glut, and places such as Kambiti open air market get flooded with tonnes of the fruit.
Such oversupply pushes farmers to sell their produces cheaply rather than let them rot in the farm.
Those lucky enough to find markets tell of harrowing tales of exploitation by middlemen.
It is always a struggle by Murang’a mango farmers to make enough money from the fruit and to take care of their families. Frustrated farmers are forced to accept as low as Sh2 for a mango which is later sold ten times the amount in Nairobi.
It is this depressing state of affairs that compelled Kambiti farmers to start value addition. They formed the self-help group, contributed funds and bought the necessary machines. Now they are turning their mango fruits into tasty crisps and powdered mango snacks.
Patrick Sila, the 15-member group’s chairperson, says the project has tremendously increased the incomes of mango farmers. Mr Sila says he obtained value addition skills at a one-day workshop by E-Kenya Sacco.
In 2015, Kambiti joined YieldWise — an initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation and implemented by TechnoServe in Kenya — where they participated in hands-on agronomy training to improve the quality of their mangoes.
“They trained us on how to take care of our mango trees, how to prune, how to harvest and they taught us how to use these fly traps,” Mr Sila says.
The group sells grade one dried mangoes at Sh800 per kilo, while grade two retails at Sh500. They also buy fruits from other farmers at Sh8 per piece.
Last season, the group sold 310 kilos of grade one and 50 kilos of grade two mangoes to exporter Azuri Health and supermarkets.
Extoling the benefits of value addition, Mr Sila explains that “30 raw mangoes produce up to 10kg of dried matter.”
Before the group started buying her mangoes in 2016, Jane Kitheka, was a stay-at-home mother, who owned a vegetable stall. She now harvests at least 10,000 pieces from her 50 trees and sells to the group, raking in Sh50,000 a month.
After years of suffering due to poor markets, the farmers say that increasing the shelf-life of their mango fruits, has opened up opportunities that they merely imagined previously.
“It is unbelievable how things can turn around. I never thought I would ever be financially independent,” says Ms Kitheka.
Paul Muasya, a lower eastern local capacity builder with SNV, a Dutch development agency, says market is key for fruit farmers, especially during the peak season.
The Kiambiti group began by processing the fruit using a solar drier but they have now switched to a new steam technology to dry the fruit.
Compared to a solar drier, the steam drier is faster and uses agricultural waste such as maize cobs, macadamia nut shells, compressed saw dust, baobab husks and tree trimmings to operate. It has also proven quite reliable since it can operate throughout the seasons including during rains.
James Macharia, a mango farmer in the area, says the biggest challenge farmers now face is the fruit fly, which has hindered many farmers from selling to exporters and premium markets who pay well.
The flies are a menace to many mango growers in the country, destroying more than 60 percent of farm fruit and leading to an annual loss of up to $2 billion to farmers across the continent, experts say.
Samson Nduati,a field extension officer in Murang’a, says that while fruit flies have spoilt the export market, they are encouraging farmers to use integrated pest management practices to control the menacing flies.
To control the flies, farmers are embracing various methods including the use of pheromone traps to capture and kill male fruit flies.
Farmers are also encouraged to prune their trees so that all the branches can easily be sprayed.
“The fruit flies pricks and lay eggs inside the fruits. You can have a very ripe succulent mango but when it is cut you see maggots moving around,” Macharia says, adding that “nobody wants to buy such fruits.”
Mr Macharia says he spends at least Sh250 to buy fruit fly baits or pheromone. “The bait is placed inside a bottle with a tiny opening so that the flies cannot leave once they enter,” explaind Mr Macharia, who is also a member of the farmers’ group.