There's Something About Kiwi

Features Issue 114 Apr, 2011
Text by Nandita Rana / Photo: ECS Media

The kiwi fruit, with its exotic taste and its newbie appeal, is more available now than before, with its cultivation proving to be good business.

The winds of change are finally blowing over the Nepalese fruit market. Ten years back from now, exotic varieties of fruit were almost impossible to find. We are bombarded with a plethora of seasonal delights, but only a few varieties of common fruits make it to the market. Thanks to the assistance from various international organisations however, horticulture in Nepal is picking up interestingly and local farmers are experimenting more now than ever. No wonder, the privilege to nibble on some juicy, locally grown, exotic fruits as afternoon munchies, is now rather possible. One of the fruits gaining heavy momentum in Nepalese horticulture is the Kiwi.

The kiwi was until recently, limited to certain private households with its cultivation confined to few a acres of land assisted by Japanese organizations - JICA and JAITI Nepal. “I remember planting one of the first Kiwi saplings in Budhanilkantha (a town to the far north of Kathmandu) – at the residence of one of Nepal’s former Prime Ministers. It must be in the 1980s, some thirty years back,” recalls Karma Wanchuk Lama, the unofficial, local Kiwi expert. His expertise springs from a passion for the fruit and from his profession as a farmer of more than four decades.

Lama’s backyard in his Maharajgunj residence is a delightful change to the urban landscape that surrounds it. It brought back memories of the orchard at my grandfather’s place, where my brother and I would often play ‘fruit fights’ - throwing tiny, budding apricots or guavas at each other or teasing our pet dog with them. For Lama, who has been a horticulturist for over 40 years, his backyard is where he tends to some exotic varieties (in the Nepalese context) of fruits and vegetables, mostly brought from Japan and China. He leads us to a Kiwi vine where a bunch of slightly golden, oval fruits hang and shows us the male and female plant. Only the female plants bear fruits when pollinated by flower bearing male plants. He examines the stems and says, “These tendrils need trimming, or else the normal growth of the fruit will be inhibited.” Visiting Lama in late November is not at all a bad idea, although October would have been better. “Kiwi season in Nepal is best around late September and October, or Dashain time,” opines Lama. What seems like a healthy fruitage to me with more than 150 golden, ripening ones is not much according to Lama. “Kiwis are yielded till the month of Magh (equivalent to early February in the English calendar), and this is the little that’s left of the fruits for this season.” He picks some from the ripe bunch for us. A kg of kiwi depending on its variety, can cost anywhere from NRs 300 to 500. “October is a very busy season,” adds Lama. “I mostly have families, especially expats placing huge orders for the fruit, and also some renowned hotels.”

His backyard garden of course would not justify the economics of supply for the huge, increasing demand of the fruit. Lama’s kiwi cultivation therefore, spans an area of more than 45 hectares of land in Sailung, Ramechhap district (87km northeast from Kathmandu), which is also Lama’s homeland, and in Taskar, Makwanpur (132 km from Kathmandu). Other individual farms are located in areas of Bajrabarahi, Lalitpur with approximately 300 kiwi plantations in the area alone. The farm in Taskar, Makwanpur has a current yield of approximately 1300 kg per season, which is twice the yield of the starting years. The farm in Ramechhap, which is still in the initial phase for commercial production, however, yields around 500 kg of the fruit per season. “Commercial cultivation is a slow growing business,” adds Lama. “A young plant takes up to three years to mature and needs a lot of tending during this period. It needs appropriate temperature and water conditions, and is best suited in places more than 1400m above sea level.”

Commercial kiwi cultivation is spread over an extensive area no doubt. However, an hour of sunlight per day is adequate for growth. “Land that faces south-west is best for the plant,” says one of Lama’s associate. As far as extra nutrition is concerned, Lama uses organic animal dung for manure, which according to him is essential up to the second year of the plantation, and not very essential afterwards. A mature plant can yield about 100 -150 kg of the fruit after five to six years.

Intercropping is another viable feature that commercial kiwi cultivation provides and Lama so far has been enjoying mustard and ginger in his farm in Ramechhap along with kiwi. “Tea can also be intercropped in the kiwi vine,” adds Lama.  “It is a wonderful citrus fruit with high contents of vitamin C. It is also a great taste enhancer.” Form his own personal experience, he adds, “If you cook any curry with the fruit, the result is just fabulous. You could add only a few slices of the fruit while cooking, especially meat curry, and you can see how it improves the taste tremendously.” Juice as well as wine produced from the fruit’s pulp is equally nutritious - a blend of exotic sweet and citrusy flavour, which even Lama has tried to manufacture.

“When I first started out, nobody was willing to experiment with kiwi farming,” says Lama, who was already acquainted with the fruit and its commercial significance after working almost 12 years in Bhutan. “As a trainee farmer, it was a great learning opportunity and has made a huge impact in my profession.” A certified horticulturist, after returning to Nepal, he attended training programs from JICA Nepal and has supervised the cultivation of different varieties of apples, grapes, plums, apricots and kiwis. Lama suggests that the Hayward varieties are the best in Nepal among others including Bruno and Alison. Meanwhile, he is willing to try out new ones including the Koshin variety, which is indeed an exclusive kiwi cultivar and cost him NRs. 50,000 for a male and female sapling.

In his garden, Lama tends to these two new additions with utmost consideration. Amidst the assortment of Chinese spinach, Japanese fig, Japanese apple, Japanese yam and Macadami nuts, his kiwi plants receive equal attention. His garden is in fact wholly organic, and he uses a special container to trap the insects that might harm his kiwi plants.  A medicinal replica of the scent of the female flies is used to attract the male insects, which is then trapped inside a container. “I learnt this technique from one of the Japanese kiwi doctors,” added Lama. Tending to the young sapling, Lama laments over the present state of horticulture in Nepal.  “The lack of expertise and technical assistance has taken a heavy toll on farmers. As long as we don’t have expert supervision, a large scale production of kiwi is almost impossible.” He further stresses that, “The development of the fruit’s cultivation seen in Nepal, so far has been limited to individual initiatives, especially of the farmers and they have been tending to it manually mostly, without much technical support.”

For all the efforts that Karma Wanchuk Lama has rendered into kiwifruit cultivation, he wishes nothing more than its recognition in the domestic market. “As exclusive as the kiwi fruit is, with its high vitamin content and multiple health benefits, all I want is for people to have access to the fruit locally and enjoy its richness like any other fruit in the market.”