The tragedy of buying fruit at the roadside

Monday February 22 2016

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In academia we call them necessity entrepreneurs. 

They get into business, not of their own volition, but due to circumstances. 

They are in business, not to exploit opportunity but to do something amid pervasive unemployment. 

Most have no ideas of their own but thrive in replicating what exists.

It so happens that recently, on my way from Nyeri, I stopped by the roadside in Kirinyaga.  

Immediately, I was mobbed by an army of women banana hawkers, commonly known as mama mboga or women vegetable sellers, all of them pushing and shoving, demanding that I buy a bunch from them. 

I did not need to bargain since they kept on dropping the price to entice me to buy. Eventually when I bought, the price was practically nothing compared to the value of what I bought. They called it bei ya jioni, or evening price.

Perhaps what they meant by that was they needed cash to buy something for the family that day, or were worried that their perishable product would not fetch much the following day. This bothered me a great deal as I drove back to Nairobi. 

I asked myself many questions: How do the desperate poor determine price? How will they rid themselves of poverty if they keep selling below market price?  Is it that difficult for us to streamline the supply chain to distribute our produce in a civilised manner?

Can our universities not make driers to help these women retain the value of their produce? Whose responsibility is it to lessen the risk these women face hustling on highways to feed their families?

We all have a responsibility to tackle social issues facing our people.  Let me stick with the banana to explain our role in ensuring that these women are treated fairly, after toiling in their shambas only to suffer in disposing of their produce. 

A lot of the cereal we eat in Kenya is imported and contains dried bananas.  These imports unfairly impoverish local farmers while enriching foreign countries. 

If we stopped buying these imports and demanded fair trade for our people, multinational makers of cereal would listen and set up local manufacturing facilities that effectively provide the demand that these women desperately want.

We also have a responsibility of streamlining the supply chain considering the fact that not every part of this country is banana rich. 

Different parts of the country have different produce and capacities.  What is needed is a local commodities exchange that highlights areas of surplus and deficit, and seeks to redistribute the produce to where it is needed most. 

We also need to develop banana-based food recipes and other products that require banana as a source of raw material in order to increase its consumption locally, increase durability, and provide some market to the commodity.

This argument can be extended to all other perishables that go to waste because nobody has looked into the plight of these necessity entrepreneurs.

In Western Kenya for example, huge quantities of guava fruit go to waste, yet we import guava juice from South Africa. 

In several parts of the country, tomatoes go to waste yet we import dried tomatoes from Spain and ketchup from the US. The consequence is that Kabazi Canners in Subukia, perhaps Kenya’s foremost processor of fresh tomatoes, closed down last year.   

We do not even pay attention to several other fruits, including some that grow in the wild and could be an important source for wealth and employment creation. 

We are simply walking on opportunities for wealth creation as we pump money into the trade of used products from other countries. You can’t grow this country’s economy through consumption only.  

Perhaps we have failed to see value in the abundant resources we have. The pricing of our products is not scientific. This is true for all our produce, including coffee, tea, pyrethrum and other crops. Farmers have little say in product pricing.

We can become part of the global supply chain if our universities begin to work with industry to develop local products, brand them and market them globally. Universities in developed countries play an important role in birthing and incubating new enterprises.

Kenyan universities and colleges need to assume this role, by innovating around food processing, manufacturing and packaging. Once such products are ready for the market, the firms can be spun off and sold to interested private interests on condition that they continue to source local raw materials.

Government, on its part, should give incentives such as tax rebates and export facilitation to factories that use local raw materials.

I am not the first to advocate for value addition to existing primary products.  It is our only means of scaling enterprises into the global market. 

Why not, for example, develop new ice cream flavours from the huge Murang’a mangoes or the sweet Kisii banana and become part of the global product chain?

We even have very many special fruits that could be used to develop unique gourmet products. These include the banana-shaped wild “passion” fruit sold around Lari on the Nairobi-Naivasha highway, and the numerous traditional Kikuyu and Kisii banana varieties now facing extinction.

These indigenous varieties have special tastes and flavours around which new tasty products could be developed.

It is a shame that we export coffee only for global food giants to export coffee flavoured sweets into Africa. Africa also exports cocoa from Ivory Coast, only to import chocolate. 

We have a real chance to disrupt this global supply chain by developing new products at the source of materials. For some reason, we continue to embrace colonial conspiracy that we cannot innovate and be globally competitive. 

We can also break into the global market by disrupting multinational firms that have dominated the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) category for ages, by taking advantage of liberalised knowledge, abundant resources and the beautiful weather that God has given to us. 

Look at Bidco for example. From a humble beginning, the company has managed to effectively compete with multinationals and become a multinational itself. 

We cannot rid ourselves out of poverty if we cannot think beyond our borders for market.

That is the reason why we must take the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) seriously and test the implicit limits that some African states imagine exist even before trying. 

Politicisation of trade pacts will never benefit the people of Africa. 

We have seen this before with the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) that was created in 1975 to promote sustainable development and poverty reduction within its member states, as well as greater integration into the world's economy.

In spite of several conventions, ordinary citizens like the women banana sellers I met on my way from Nyeri have no clue that such trade pacts exist and can impact their lives.

African policymakers have a great responsibility to deliberately develop scalable enterprises through standardisation of produce, removal of trade barriers for export into other African countries in need of the commodities, formalisation of the informal retail networks and building of capacity in logistics.

The continent needs new industrialisation policies geared toward the exploitation of local resources and development of a comprehensive supply chain for various crops by understanding their consumption patterns and building of supportive infrastructure like solar-powered cold storage and food driers to delay consumption of perishables. 

More importantly, we must begin a comprehensive education program for rural people to make available critical information on crop production and post-harvest technologies. 

Lastly, we should convert the Postal Corporation of Kenya into an efficient logistics company to distribute agricultural produce across the country and beyond.  This is what matters for our future sustainability.

George Bernard Shaw once said ‘We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.’

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.