Litchi: A new yet old fruit tree for Kenya
Mangoes, when in season, are available in copious amounts and varieties all over Kenya.
But litchi, another exotic tree fruit, is always scarce. Imported and found exclusively in the most upmarket greengrocers and specialty stores in Nairobi, litchi’s retail price of 10-18 dollars a kilo keeps it firmly out of the reach of the majority. But this year a seed has been sown that could see the local cultivation and vulgarization of litchi begin in Kenya.
The World Agroforestry (ICRAF) recently imported ten litchi plantlets of a popular commercial variety from Mauritius. The plantlets (or marcotts), of the cultivar Tai So (also known as Mauritius), will be scientifically evaluated before being promoted among Kenyan farmers, says Dr. Parveen Anjarwalla, the scientist at ICRAF who facilitated the marcotts’ acquisition from Mauritius.
Litchi (Litchi chinensis), also called lychee or lichee, is an evergreen tree native to Guangdon province in southern China. Today, the tree is cultivated in many parts of Asia and in warmer regions of USA, in South America and Mexico. In Africa the leading litchi producers are Mauritius, Madagascar, Réunion and South Africa. Although some old litchi trees exist in various parts of the country, no commercial farming of litchi has taken place in Kenya to date.
Litchi is a highly nutritious. “Just a handful (around nine fruits) of fresh litchi meets an adult’s recommended daily Vitamin C intake, and provides good amounts of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium,” says Dr. Ramni Jamnadass, leader of the Science Domain on Tree Diversity, Domestication and Delivery at ICRAF.
Jamnadass will lead the research, in collaboration with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), to evaluate the suitability of litchi cultivation in various parts of Kenya. The work will be done under the auspices of ICRAF’s Fruiting Africa Program, which is funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the European Union.
Litchi does well in tropical to sub-tropical climates in areas with slightly acidic, well-drained deep soils with good water-holding capacity and organic matter content, explains Dr. Katja Kehlenbeck, ICRAF’s focal point for the CGIAR Collaborative Research Programme on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH). She is optimistic that several areas of Kenya will meet litchi’s agronomic requirements, and expects the evaluation trials to be successful.
The work will also involve socioeconomic surveys to see whether local people like the taste of litchi and how much they would be willing to pay for the fruit, as well as market analyses and value chain development studies.
Before popularizing the fruit tree, researchers at ICRAF, KARI, and local partners will develop guidelines for litchi cultivation in Kenya. For instance, litchi does well in mixed agroforestry systems, and before the tree matures farmers often intercrop it with vegetables and pulses. The partners will also work out seedling production protocols that will allow farmers to access high quality seedlings easily and inexpensively.
Jamnadass estimates that it will take around 10 years from first evaluations to large-scale introduction of litchi seedlings into smallholder farmers’ fields in Kenya.
With good adoption, Kenya and even neighbouring countries would join the world’s litchi producers. This would make the delectable fruit accessible to most people and bring nutritional gains for the population.
Eventually, litchi might turn into an export commodity, further augmenting the region’s strong horticultural sector, which in 2011 earned Kenya alone over one billion US dollars.
The litchi marcotts were imported into Kenya through the Mauritius Ministry for Tertiary Education, Science, Research and Technology; the Mauritius Ministry of Agriculture; and University of Mauritius.