Grape farming in Kenya has been experiencing remarkable growth in recent years, positioning itself as a promising and profitable venture. This is because the demand for high-quality grapes and wine continues to increase both domestically and internationally,
The number of registered grape farms has increased from 20 farms in 2015 to over 120 in 2021, indicating an average annual growth rate of approximately 35%.
This article will tell you all you need to know about grape farming in Kenya, such as the best grape seed varieties and what to look out for when farming grapes.
Grape Farming In Kenya
Grape farming in the country has great potential, as seen from data from the Ministry of Agriculture. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the export market for Kenyan grapes has been growing rapidly, with an estimated export value of over 500 million KES in 2022. This represents an increase of 45% compared to 2021. These figures underscore the tremendous potential for profitability in the grape farming sector.
Grape Varieties Planted in Kenya
In Kenya, grape farming has shown great promise due to its suitable climate and soil conditions in certain regions. When considering the best grape varieties to grow in Kenya, farmers should focus on those that can thrive in warm and tropical climates while offering excellent yield, disease resistance, and quality produce is crucial.
Here are some grape varieties that have shown potential for successful cultivation in Kenya:
- Flame Seedless: Flame Seedless is a popular red table grape variety known for its sweet, juicy berries. It is well-suited to Kenya’s warm climate and has good disease resistance. This variety is sought locally and for export markets due to its appealing flavour and attractive appearance.
- Thompson Seedless: Thompson Seedless, or Sultana, is a green table grape variety well-adapted to warm climates. It is one of the most widely grown grape varieties globally and does well in Kenya. Its seedless nature and sweet taste make it a favourite for restaurants.
- Red Globe: Red Globe is a red table grape variety that produces large, round berries with a crisp texture and mild, sweet flavour. This variety has proven successful in regions with warm day temperatures and cool nights.
- Perlette: Perlette is a white table grape variety that can tolerate warm climates and is known for its early maturity. The fruit has sweet and juicy berries, making it an attractive option for local markets and export.
- Superior Seedless: Superior Seedless is a green seedless grape variety that does well in warm climates. The grape has a sweet and refreshing taste, and its seedless nature makes it a preferred choice for fresh consumption and drying into raisins.
- Victoria: Victoria is a purple to black coloured grape variety with a pleasant sweetness. It is well-adapted to warm climates and has demonstrated success in parts of Kenya.
Step By Step Grape Farming Guide
Below is a step-by-step guide that farmers must use to ensure their grape farming venture is fruitful and profitable.
Step 1: Site Selection
Start by assessing the climatic conditions of the target site. Grapes thrive in areas with warm temperatures and specific chill hours (hours below a certain temperature threshold during dormancy). Determine if your region experiences the necessary temperature ranges for grape farming. In Kenya, areas such as Naivasha, Nakuru, Meru, and parts of Nairobi have favourable grape farming conditions.
You should then do a thorough soil analysis of the site to determine its suitability for grape cultivation. Collect soil samples from different parts of the land and send them to a reputable agricultural laboratory for testing. The analysis should assess the soil pH, organic matter content, nutrient levels (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), and soil texture. Grapes generally prefer well-drained soils with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0.
Sunlight and Air Circulation
The target site should get plenty of sunlight, as grapes require a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight daily for optimal growth and fruit production. Also, the surrounding landscape and structures should provide good air circulation. Good circulation helps prevent moisture buildup and reduces the risk of diseases like powdery mildew.
Assess the availability of water resources for irrigation purposes. Consider access to a reliable water source, such as rivers, boreholes, or sufficient rainfall in the region. Grapevines need regular and controlled watering throughout the growing season to ensure proper growth, fruit development, and overall plant health.
Topography and Drainage
Gentle slopes or flat terrain are preferred to facilitate proper water drainage and prevent waterlogging, which can harm grapevines. Avoid areas prone to flooding or stagnant water.
Proximity to Markets and Infrastructure
Consider the site’s proximity to potential markets, as this will influence the transportation costs and feasibility of selling the grapes. Additionally, assess the availability of infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and storage facilities, which are essential for the successful operation of a grape farming business.
By carefully considering these factors during site selection, you can set the foundation for a successful grape farming venture. Remember to consult with local agricultural experts, extension services, or experienced grape farmers in your region to gain valuable insights and recommendations specific to your location.
Step 2: Variety Selection
Select grape varieties well-suited to your climate, soil conditions, and market demand. Consider disease resistance, yield potential, and intended use (table grapes, winemaking, or raisins). Consult local agricultural experts or grape farmers for guidance on the best varieties for your region.
When selecting grape varieties for cultivation, it’s important to consider the specific regions within the country and their unique climatic conditions.
Different grape varieties excel in particular regions based on temperature, rainfall, altitude, and soil type. Here are some suitable grape varieties for different regions in Kenya:
Grape Farming in Naivasha, Nakuru, and Meru Regions
These regions are known for their moderate temperatures, suitable for grape cultivation. Recommended varieties for these regions include:
Flame Seedless: A red table grape variety known for its sweet, juicy berries and adaptability to warm climates. It performs well in the Naivasha, Nakuru, and Meru regions.
Red Globe: This red table grape variety produces large, round berries with a mild, sweet flavour. It is well-suited to regions with warm daytime temperatures and cooler nights.
Grape Farming in Nairobi and Kiambu Areas
The Nairobi region experiences a slightly cooler climate than other parts of Kenya. Suitable grape varieties for this region include:
Thompson Seedless: Also known as Sultana, it is a green table grape variety that is well-adapted to warm climates. It is one of the most widely grown grape varieties globally and can thrive in Nairobi’s conditions.
Italia: This white grape variety, also known as Italia Muscat or Muscat of Alexandria, performs well in warm climates. It has a distinct muscat flavour and is suitable for table grape consumption and winemaking.
Mount Kenya Region:
The Mount Kenya region experiences cooler temperatures due to its higher altitude. Suitable grape varieties for this region include:
Muscat Hamburg: This black grape variety has a strong muscat aroma and sweet flavour. It can adapt well to cooler climates and is suitable for fresh consumption and winemaking.
Ribier: Ribier is a black grape variety that performs well in warm and tropical climates, making it suitable for the slightly cooler conditions of the Mount Kenya region.
Step 3: Land Preparation
Follow these steps to plant your grapevines effectively:
Preparing the Vineyard and Spacing
Prepare the planting area by removing any weeds, rocks, or debris. Clear the site of competing vegetation that may hinder the growth of the grapevines. This can be done manually or with the help of machinery, depending on the scale of your operation.
Determine the spacing between vines based on the specific variety, trellis system, and available resources. Generally, row spacing of 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters) and vine spacing of 6 to 10 feet (1.8 to 3 meters) within the row are standard. Lay out the vineyard in straight rows to facilitate management and mechanization.
Digging Planting Holes and Soil Preparation
Dig planting holes that are wide and deep enough to accommodate the root system of the grapevines. The holes should be approximately 2 feet (60 centimetres) wide and 2 feet (60 centimetres) deep, as recommended for your specific grape variety.
Loosen the soil at the bottom of the planting holes to ensure good root penetration. Remove any rocks, clumps, or compacted soil that may impede root growth. Incorporate organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure, into the soil to improve fertility and structure.
Planting Grapes and Backfilling
Gently remove the grapevines from their containers or bundles, taking care not to damage the roots. Place the vines in the centre of the planting holes, ensuring that the graft union (if applicable) remains above the soil surface. Spread out the roots in a natural manner.
Backfill the planting holes with the excavated soil, ensuring the roots are adequately covered. Lightly firm the soil around the vine’s base to eliminate air pockets and provide stability. Avoid compacting the soil excessively, as it may hinder root growth.
Water the newly planted grapevines thoroughly immediately after planting. This helps settle the soil and ensures good soil-to-root contact. Provide regular watering during the establishment period to support root development, especially during dry spells.
Mulching and Trellis Installation
Apply a layer of organic mulch around the base of the grapevines to help conserve soil moisture, suppress weed growth, and maintain more stable soil temperatures. Use materials such as straw, wood chips, or compost to prevent rot and maintain a distance between the mulch and the vine trunk.
If utilizing a trellis system, install it soon after planting the grapevines. The trellis provides support and structure for the vines as they grow. Follow the specific trellis design and construction guidelines suitable for your chosen grape training system.
Step 4: Planting
Plant grapevines during the appropriate planting season, usually in early spring or late autumn. Dig planting holes deep and wide enough to accommodate the root system of the vines. Place the vines in the holes, ensuring that the graft union (if applicable) remains above the soil surface. Backfill the holes with soil, firm it gently around the roots, and water thoroughly.
Step 5: Training and Pruning
Training and pruning are crucial steps in grapevine management that contribute to the vineyard’s overall health, productivity, and quality. Proper training starts with selecting a suitable training system based on the grape variety, vineyard layout, and management preferences. Establishing the desired framework early on is essential, whether it’s the T-trellis, vertical shoot positioning (VSP), high wire cordon, or another system.
During the first growing season, attention should be given to training the young vine. The main shoot or cane is gently guided along the chosen trellis wire, ensuring it is securely attached for vertical growth. Lateral shoots or buds emerging from the lower parts of the vine are removed to redirect energy towards the main shoot.
When the grapevines enter their dormant period, pruning becomes essential. Pruning is typically conducted before bud break in late winter or early spring. This is the time to remove dead, damaged, or weak wood. Selecting the best canes or spurs to serve as the framework for the upcoming season’s growth is crucial. The number of canes or spurs retained depends on factors such as the training system and the variety’s vigour.
Throughout the growing season, canopy management is vital in maintaining vine health and optimizing fruit quality. Monitoring shoot growth helps identify the need to remove excess shoots or lateral branches, promoting proper airflow and preventing overcrowding. Removing leaves that shade the fruit clusters enhances sunlight exposure, reducing the risk of diseases and supporting fruit development.
An annual pruning routine is followed as the vine matures to balance vegetative growth and fruit production. This includes removing old wood and selecting robust and healthy wood for the next season’s growth. Proper pruning techniques, such as making clean cuts close to the desired bud or lateral branch, should be used to minimize the risk of disease and wood rot.
Regular inspection and maintenance of the training and pruning structures, such as trellis wires, stakes, or posts, are necessary to ensure their stability and support for the vines. Repairs or adjustments should be made as needed to maintain the integrity of the vineyard infrastructure.
Step 6: Irrigation and Fertilization
Provide adequate irrigation to grapevines, especially during dry periods. Drip irrigation systems are often recommended to conserve water and deliver it directly to the root zone. Monitor soil moisture levels and adjust irrigation accordingly. Apply balanced fertilizers based on soil test results and the specific nutrient requirements of grapevines.
Step 7: Disease and Pest Management
Pest and disease management is critical in grape farming to protect the vines from potential threats and ensure healthy plant growth and fruit production. Effective pest and disease management practices involve a combination of preventive measures, regular monitoring, and appropriate interventions. Follow these guidelines for successful pest and disease management in your grape vineyard:
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Approach
Adopt an integrated approach to pest and disease management, known as IPM. IPM combines multiple strategies to minimize reliance on chemical interventions and prioritize environmentally friendly practices. This approach involves regularly monitoring, maintaining vineyard health, using cultural practices, and selecting pesticides when necessary.
Regularly inspect the grapevines for signs of pests, diseases, or other issues. Monitor the vineyard at different growth stages, paying close attention to vulnerable periods such as bud break, flowering, and fruit development. Look for symptoms such as leaf damage, discolouration, distortion, insect presence, or other abnormalities.
Implement cultural practices that promote vineyard health and reduce pest and disease pressure. This includes proper pruning to maintain good airflow and sunlight penetration, managing weed growth, maintaining appropriate irrigation and fertilization practices, and practising good sanitation by removing fallen leaves, debris, and diseased plant material from the vineyard.
Beneficial Insects for Grapes
Encourage beneficial insects that naturally control pests in the vineyard. These insects, such as ladybugs, lacewings, and parasitic wasps, can help suppress populations of harmful pests. Planting companion plants or cover crops that attract beneficial insects and provide suitable habitats, such as hedgerows or flowering plants, can enhance their presence in the vineyard.
Pest Identification and Trapping
Identify and monitor specific pests known to affect grapevines in your region. Set up traps or monitoring devices to detect pest populations and determine the appropriate timing for intervention. This helps in implementing targeted pest management strategies and reduces unnecessary pesticide applications.
Use Disease-resistant Varieties
Consider planting disease-resistant grape varieties when available. Disease-resistant varieties can reduce the risk of certain fungal diseases, such as powdery and downy mildew. Consult local agricultural experts or grape breeders for recommendations on disease-resistant varieties suitable for your region.
Maintain detailed pest and disease management records, including monitoring results, interventions, and spray applications. This helps track trends, evaluate the effectiveness of pest management strategies, and plan future treatments.
Lastly, stay updated on the latest pest and disease management practices through educational resources, workshops, and consultations with local agricultural extension services or grape farming associations. Networking with experienced growers and participating in industry events can provide valuable insights and knowledge-sharing opportunities.
Step 8: Canopy Management
Manage the canopy of grapevines by ensuring proper shoot positioning, leaf removal, and cluster thinning. This helps improve sunlight penetration, airflow and reduces the risk of diseases. Prune excess shoots and leaves that may shade the fruit clusters excessively.
Step 9: Harvesting
Harvesting grapes is a critical stage in grape farming that requires careful attention and adherence to best practices to ensure the highest quality fruit. One of the most crucial factors in grape harvesting is timing. It is essential to harvest grapes at the right stage of maturity, depending on their intended use. For table grapes, the harvest should occur when the berries have reached full colour, firmness, and the desired level of sweetness. Conversely, winemakers must consider various factors such as sugar levels, acidity, and flavour profile when determining the optimal time to harvest the grapes for wine production.
Regular sampling and testing of grapes from different parts of the vineyard are necessary to ensure uniform ripeness across the vineyard. This allows grape farmers to monitor the sugar content (measured in Brix), acidity levels, and flavour development. By taking samples from various clusters and locations, they can account for potential variations within the vineyard and make informed decisions regarding the optimal harvest time for different vineyard sections.
When it comes to actually harvesting the grapes, hand harvesting is often the preferred method. Hand harvesting allows for the selective picking of fully ripe bunches while minimizing damage to the fruit. Harvesters wear clean gloves to prevent contamination or damage to the grapes during handling. Specialized tools such as sharp pruning shears or grape harvest knives are used to carefully cut the grape clusters from the vine, ensuring the integrity of the berries.
Once the grapes are harvested, it is crucial to sort them immediately. Sorting involves carefully examining each cluster and removing damaged, unripe, or mould-infected berries. This meticulous process ensures that only the highest quality grapes are selected for further processing or market distribution. Sorting also helps maintain the overall quality and reputation of the grape crop.
Handling and properly transporting the harvested grapes are essential to preserve their quality. Handling the grapes carefully is crucial to avoid bruising or damaging the berries. Shallow containers or crates are often used to prevent crushing the lower layers of grapes. Proper ventilation in storage containers or refrigerated trucks is crucial to maintain freshness and prevent moisture buildup if the grapes need to be transported over a distance.
To extend the shelf life and preserve the harvested grapes’ quality, cooling them as soon as possible is recommended. Cooling facilities or refrigerated trucks are used to maintain the grapes at the appropriate temperature, typically around 0-4°C (32-39°F) for table grapes and slightly higher temperatures for grapes destined for winemaking. Cooling the grapes promptly helps slow the natural deterioration process and ensures they reach consumers in optimal condition.
Maintaining high standards of hygiene and cleanliness throughout the harvest process is imperative. This includes ensuring that all equipment, containers, and storage areas are clean and sanitized. By practising good hygiene, grape farmers minimize the risk of contamination and the growth of spoilage organisms, ensuring the grapes’ quality and safety.
In addition to hygiene, efficient workflow coordination is essential for a smooth and timely harvest. Organizing the harvest teams, sporting activities, and transportation logistics optimize the preservation of grape quality and minimizes delays in processing and distribution.
Lastly, keeping detailed harvest records is valuable for future reference, analysis, and planning. Recording harvest dates, grape varieties, yield quantities, and any relevant observations or issues encountered during the harvest process provides valuable information that can aid in improving future harvests and overall vineyard management.
Step 10: Post-Harvest and Marketing
Handle harvested grapes carefully to avoid damage. Sort and pack them according to their quality and market requirements. Store or transport grapes in appropriate conditions, such as refrigeration, to maintain freshness. Develop marketing strategies to sell your grapes, considering local markets, direct sales, or export opportunities.
Remember to continuously learn and adapt your grape farming practices based on your experiences, local conditions, and advancements in the industry. Regularly seek guidance from local agricultural extension services or grape farming associations to stay updated on best practices and new developments in grape cultivation.