At the close of the harvesting season in April, farmers sold macadamia nuts at Sh220 per kilo, making it one of the most lucrative cash crops in the country after tea.
The earnings are, however, peanuts, given that in South Africa and Australia, the other two countries with a global presence in macadamia production, farm gate prices range between Sh400 and Sh600 a kilo.
Kenya’s annual macadamia production has increased fourfold in 10 years from 11,000 tonnes in 2009 to 40,000 currently, with 30 firms licensed by the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) to process the nuts locally.
Most of the processed nuts are exported to the US and Europe. Grown in central, eastern and Coast counties of Nyeri, Embu, Kirinyaga, Meru and Taita Taveta, the tree, unlike other crops, is rarely attacked by pests and diseases, with powdery mildew being the only common challenge.
The macadamia tree is fairly easy to manage, with attention required mostly during the early stages. From when it matures and starts producing nuts after four years, the tree is easily manageable, although it needs a lot of water and manure.
Grafted seedlings should be planted at a spacing of at least 30x30 feet so that when they grow, they don’t become so bushy to affect production.
The holes should be 2x2 feet and the seed should be planted with manure. Lime is also used at later stages when the tree grows, especially in areas with soil acidity.
Most farmers Seeds of Gold spoke to were not aware of the care that the tree requires, with many leaving them to grow bushy affecting production.
“We only see the government banning export of raw nuts and imposing a period within which the crop should be harvested. But when it comes to development of the crop, farmers are left to their own devices,” says Daniel Murungi, a farmer from Kitheo, Tigania East in Meru County.
To curb the sale of immature nuts, AFA scheduled harvesting to between November and February each year. But farmers say this exposes them to exploitation by processors.
ANTICIPATED INCREASE IN PRODUCTION
“Between June and November, agents buy the commodity at between Sh60 and Sh100 a kilo,” says Murungi, who harvested 7,500kg between February and March from his 200 trees.
While export of raw nuts was banned in 2009 to protect local processors and create jobs, some traders smuggle the produce through Tanzania to China where there is a lucrative market for in-shell nuts.
In February 2017, 11 Chinese nationals were arrested and deported after they were accused of exporting raw nuts.
Nuts Traders Association of Kenya (NuTAK) chairman Nahashon Kihara blames the big processors for illegally exporting the nuts.
“Just two years ago, processors were buying nuts at Sh50 a kilo and claimed they were incurring losses. Now the prices have shot to over Sh200 yet they are still buying, which means they have been exploiting farmers all along,” he adds.
Charles Mwangi, a farmer in Nyeri, says the ban on export of raw nuts punishes the farmer “because processors don’t process all nuts locally”.
But Richard Ndegwa, the head of the Nut and Oil Crops Directorate at AFA, insists no smuggling of macadamia is going on as their “teams are stationed at the borders and collaborate with customs officials”.
The global annual production of macadamia nuts is estimated at 200,000 tonnes and Kenya, with 40,000 tonnes, is ranked third behind Australia and South Africa.
AFA projects that with increased acreage under the crop, production will hit 60,000 tonnes by 2022.
The target is non-traditional areas such as Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo Marakwet and Nandi counties. County governments of Meru, Taita Taveta, Nyeri, Kirinyaga, Embu and Tharaka-Nithi have also stepped up efforts to scale up production.
In Meru, farmers were last November provided with 200,000 grafted seedlings worth Sh60 million. In partnership with the government of Slovakia, the county targets to double production to 10,000 tonnes by 2022.
The Eastern European country is also working with farmers in Kakamega and Elgeyo Marakwet counties.
Anticipating increased production in the next five years, processors have installed a processing capacity of 90,000 tonnes.
Charles Muigai, the NutPAK CEO, says the huge processing deficit gives opportunity for farmers to increase production.
“Farmers are quickly shifting to macadamia owing to the frustrations from other crops like tea, coffee, sugarcane and maize,” he says.
AFA now says it is working towards allowing each county to set their own harvesting season in new regulations being drafted.
The rules to affect all nuts including coconuts, cashew nuts, macadamia, ground nuts, sunflower, oil seed rape, sim sim, castor beans and jojoba, will also require processors to enter into contracts with growers.
Other rules relate to standards processors are required to adhere to including storage and handling of the produce.
At the Coast, Taita Taveta is in an ambitious plan to make the plant the county’s top cash crop. Recently, some 1,316 farmers in Wusi/Kishamba and Chawia wards got a huge boost after the devolved unit gave them 8,500 macadamia seedlings.
A macadamia tree produces 100kg and with a minimum of 10 trees, a farmer can harvest a tonne per year. An acre can hold up to 40 macadamia trees, thus a farmer is guaranteed up to Sh600,000 after the fifth year of planting.
“We sell our produce through brokers and the market is not steady. Last year, we sold a kilo at Sh140 while this year, the price ranges from Sh160 to 170 per kilo,” says Agneta Wakalo who has been farming macadamia since 2000.
So, if macadamia is the golden crop of the moment, why are many farmers not taking it up?
“Lack of information,” Richard Ngunjiri, an agronomist working with the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (Koan) explains. “Farmers are not even aware of the inexhaustible market. They have not been sensitised enough by the government, processors or the Export Promotion Council.”
Dr Jackan Gutu, the Water and environment executive in Kirinyaga county, says many farmers were discouraged from planting macadamia after waiting for over three years only to reap nothing because of poor seeds sold by unscrupulous traders.
Peter Wangara, a partner at Limbua Group, a macadamia processing firm, says high cost of seedlings is among the challenges the sector is grappling with.
Non-grafted macadamia trees start bearing nuts after seven years with their production averaging seven to 10 kilos in the first year and has a limit of around 50kg per season as it grows.
Macadamia varieties include Ex-Thika, Ex-Kiambu, Ex-Murang’a, Ex-Embu, Murang’a 20 and Murang’a 23, according to Ngunjiri, which are adapted to different agro-ecological zones.
During harvesting, macadamia nuts should be husked within 24 hours and aired to prevent mould formation. Pruning and biological pests control also helps enhance yields.
Kenya’s efforts in expanding macadamia farming has seen the country selected to host the ninth international macadamia symposium in August 2021.
Nutritious nuts have antioxidants
While macadamia nuts can be eaten raw, they are processed (roasted) and packaged into sachets of as low as 100 grammes, available in supermarkets.
They are also sold as snacks in long-haul passenger transport vehicles and flights. Macadamia nuts are also processed into oil.
According to nutritionists, the nuts have a high content of mono-unsaturated fat, and their oil is regarded healthy for cooking, what with its distinctive taste and the fact that it can be cooked at high temperatures without losing its flavour. The nuts are cholesterol-free and a source of vitamin A, iron, fiber and protein.
The nuts contain flavonoids, which are naturally found in plants. The human digestive system converts the flavanoids into antioxidants, which lower blood pressure and guard against some cancer types.