Pyrethrum farming was once a major source of income generating billions of shillings in foreign revenue in the 1980s before the sub-sector sunk on its knees.
Today, most of the 200,000 farmers who religiously smiled all the way to the bank every month have uprooted the crop due to non-payment of their arrears.
According to the latest statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture, the number of farmers growing the crop has nose-dived to between 15,000 and 20,000 in 18 counties.
During its hey days it was regarded as the ‘black gold’ and was the third largest foreign exchange earner with the government pocketing in excess of Sh18 billion annually during a good harvest.
Today the cash crop is struggling to stay afloat even as demand for the Kenya pyrethrum still remains high in the international markets.
The European Union and the United States are keen on chemicals sprayed on horticulture products entering their markets and the local pyrethrum has a ready market owing to its high quality and low chemical use.
Both European and America markets consume about 80 per cent of the Kenyan pyrethrum.
Despite this huge market, the sector has been reeling under huge debts due to years of mismanagement, corruption, theft and underfunding by the exchequer.
However, the government says the sector will soon come out of the woods and is banking on a revival plan that is slowly gathering momentum.
The 54-year-old Pyrethrum Processing Company of Kenya (PPCK) in Nakuru has been one of the focal points in this revival plan.
The acting managing director of the revamped PPCK Mr Paul Lolwerikoi is optimistic that the sector will blossom again and more farmers will troop back to their farms.
“At the moment we are processing 110 metric tonnes (MT) of dried flowers, which when fully processed in the next two weeks will rake in more than Sh50million,” said Mr Lolwerikoi during an interview with Smart Company.
“This in essence means that if we succeed in our expansion plan, which is key in the sector’s revival by achieving 2,000MT of dry flower per annum, farmers will earn almost Sh1 billion in only two months.”
The dried flowers were delivered at the largely dormant Nakuru factory between April and May. The last time the factory crashed dried flowers was in October last year.
The PPCK boss said an estimated 10,000 acres is required to produce 2,000MT of dry flowers yearly by 2018, which translates to 200 kilogrammes per acre.
“This will enable us sustain our international markets and increase the sale of the by-products,” said Mr Loloweriko.
By-products such as pymark, which is sold as animal feed, pygrese, used to contain ticks and tsetse fly and pyrgro, which is used to make pesticide, will boost the company’s balance sheet.
The board has been gradually mending its relationship with farmers by engaging them on its plan to boost production. The government also released Sh25 million mid last month to clear dues owed to the growers.
“We have started on a clean sheet and our commitment to clear the debt has made farmers to troop back to their farms and we are now slowly moving back on the right track,” said Mr Loloweriko.
As parts of revival efforts, PPCK is preparing 100 cares of land in Molo, Ol jororok and Olenguruone that will be used as a seed centre for pyrethrum clonal materials.
“The commercial planting materials are currently being developed at the University of Nairobi which will later be distributed to farmers,” he said.
The company’s plan to diversify its income streams is paying off, Between March and May this year, it collected Sh1.8 million in rental fees after it engaged Bonkam Ventures to manage its properties.
Procurement not followed
That plan has, however, come under criticism with the Pyrethrum Growers Association (PGA) national chairman Mr Justus Mochache Monda who said the procurement process of engaging the firm was not followed, a claim Mr Lolweriko denied.
PPCK has aso leased its 150 acres of land in Oljororok and is managing its nuclear farms with tea farms generating more than Sh2 million.
However, farmers are cautiously optimistic going forward. They said they have been told in the past of grand plans to revive the sector only for their hopes to be dashed by lack of implementation.
Mr Julius Njogu, a farmer in Olkaou, Nyandarua County who owns seven acres of the crop, said lack of planting materials was still a big challenge.
“I require Sh70,000 to acquire planting materials and PPCK should make sure they are readily available at a subsidised price,” said Mr Njogu.
He called on the government to fast track the formation of the PPCK board of directors.
“PPCK is owned by the farmers and farmers should be given a chance to elect their directors to steer it to new heights of profitability,” said Mr Njogu.
Mr Simon ole Poror from Narok said that he had abandoned the crop, but had decided to go back to the farm after the company started clearing the arrears.
“There is hope as PPCK has also promised to provide us with certified seeds and since this is a crop with high income I am back to the farm,” said Mr Poror.
However, even as the sector is waking up from its deep slumber, it faces serious challenges.
Top on the list is climate change which has seen the country experience reduced rains.
The ageing factory, which is inefficient and requires 25MT of dried flowers daily to run is also another hurdle.
“This factory is expensive to maintain and can only operate with more than 100 MT tonnes at a go and that is why we accumulate to reach the target,” said Mr Lolwerikoi.
He, however, said this would be a thing of the past as PPCK is in the process of acquiring a five metric tonne extraction machine.
Currently the national acreage under the crop is 4,000 acres with North Rift and West Pokot having the highest pyrethrin (the base extract) content in the country at the moment.
Pyrethrum growing counties in the North Rift are Trans Nzoia, Keiyo Marakwet, Uasin Gishu and Nandi with a total 1,640 acres under the crop.
Other top growing counties include Kericho, Nakuru, Baringo, which also have 1,640 acreage under the crop followed by Nyeri, Laikipia, Nyandarua and Meru, with 370 acres under the crop.
Kisii , Narok and Bomet have the least number of acreage at 145 acres.
“In the next one or two months we shall install the machine and every day we shall at least crash five metric tonnes and that means the money will be revolving every day,” he added.
Underfunding by the government is another critical issue which has slowed down the revival process as only Sh100 million was allocated by the government in the current financial year.