When pyrethrum farming was still a lucrative business, blooming flowers painted a magnificent picture of snow-canopied farms, and the money it put in farmers’ pockets earned it the moniker “white gold”.
Grown nearly entirely by small-scale farmers across 18 counties, perhaps no other cash crop was more widespread, and whose long drawn-out and painful death came with devastating consequences to rural economies.
And no other crop has so stubbornly refused to flourish despite repeated efforts to resuscitate it.
Kenya was once the leading producer of pyrethrum in the world. At its peak in the 1980s and 90s, it produced more than 12,000 tonnes per year, providing 70 per cent of the global supply which earned the country more than Sh4 billion in the time’s exchange rate.
This huge dominance then translated into wealth for more than 200,000 farmers in Nakuru, Nyandarua, Narok, West Pokot, Nyeri, Kisii, Embu, Meru, Kiambu, Murang'a, Uasin Gishu, Laikipia, Nyamira, Bomet, Kericho, Bungoma, Elgeyo Marakwet and Baringo counties.
Then neglect and plunder of the sub-sector set in and production took a nose-dive.
Today, only about 30,000 farmers are cultivating the crop, producing a paltry 350 tonnes yearly. Earnings have declined to about Sh200 million per year.
The sector is reeling under myriad problems as impoverished farmers watch haplessly.
The frustrated farmers have abandoned the crop, replacing it with potatoes, horticulture and dairy; while others have left their plots to lay fallow over an uncertain future.
Even as a committee tasked with the rival of the crop got down to work in Nakuru this week, the problem appears simple: as in other crops, lack of quality seeds and the death of extension service is wreaking havoc.
“In the golden days, we used to receive quality seeds, but for many years I have not seen a single extension officer visiting my farm to check on the progress or address any challenges I am facing,” Wahu Kimathi, a former grower at Kiambogo in Gilgil, told Nation during a tour of the area.
The fluctuating prices of dry flowers have seen many farmers shy away from the venture as they feel the processors are exploiting them.
Yet it was not always like this. For 90 years, smallholder farmers who grew the crop on quarter-acre plots were the backbone of the industry.
But the plight of the farmers has largely been ignored by the subsequent regimes which have underfunded the sector as mismanagement and looting continued unabated.
Farmers who used to make a beeline to the now-moribund Nakuru factory to deliver their flowers have disappeared.
Today, the country produces a mere 50 metric tonnes per month yet Tanzania, which was nowhere on the pyrethrum global map, is now producing 300 metric tonnes per month.
The sector is run without a board of management at the Pyrethrum Processing Company of Kenya (PPCK) reducing it to a one-man show.
Corruption at PPCK over the years has been a major hindrance to the revival of the cash crop.
A recent Auditor-General report for 2017-2018 indicates that PPCK paid Sh20 million to casuals for work not done, reflecting how far the sector has fallen from its glory days.
Poor quality clones and varieties is another of the challenges facing the sector that has potential to create thousands of jobs and boost the government’s Big Four Agenda on manufacturing.
Delayed collection of dry flowers and payment by some of the processors has made it difficult to convince unhappy farmers to increase acreage.
But the biggest challenge is lack of clean planting material resulting in poor germination rate.
John Waweru, a farmer in Molo, once the capital of pyrethrum farming in Kenya, puts the germination rate at 50 per cent.
“PPCK is supposed to be the custodian of high quality planting material. It isn’t.”
However, PPCK blamed the farmers, saying poor germination rate is due to poor agronomical practices.
“Seed sowing is critical and any slight mistake could lead to poor seedlings, and PPCK would like to partner with processors to train farmers on seed-sowing,” said a top official who could not be quoted as she is not the company’s spokesperson.
According to Nakuru County Agriculture executive Immaculate Njuthe Maina, PPCK should seal gaps right from the seed beds to packaging.
In the absence of extension officers to monitor the crop, growers also do not use the recommended fertiliser.
This, coupled with climate change and declining soil fertility, has led to low pyrethrum yields and poor pyrethrin content.
The low prices offered by buyers, which ranges from between Sh100 and Sh200 per kilogramme, is yet another hindrance that is slowing down the revival of the crop.
Lack of a refining plant is another challenge that has seen the quality of pyrethrin content dip to as low as less than one per cent. A refining plant goes for up to Sh500 million.
Some of the processors are forced to take their dry flowers to China, Madagascar and the US for refining yet Kenya has one of the best refining plants that is lying idle at PPCK.
The machine needs at least 100,000 metric tonnes to run profitably. Research on pyrethrum is also nearly non-existent.
“An industry that has stopped producing new varieties for more than 20 years will not boost production,” says Molo Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) centre director Sammy Ajanga.
Yet, as Kenya dithers, a new generation of synthetic pyrethrin that is cheaper to produce is threatening to drive natural pyrethrin out of business.
In the face of the harmful effects of the synthetic pyrethrin on the environment, some countries such as Tasmania, Rwanda, United States, Australia, Japan and China have been expanding their pyrethrum output, with their individual pyrethrum production surpassing that of Kenya despite its favourable conditions.
“Our pyrethrin content is used as a reference point by other global producers, which means if serious efforts were put in place, Kenya stands a high chance of regaining its lost global market,” says Pyrethrum Growers Association (PGA) national chairperson Justus Monda.
The PGA wants the National Treasury to allocate funds to all 18 pyrethrum growing counties to boost production and attract more processors.
Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri recently announced that Treasury would allocate Nakuru County Sh45 million this financial year to boost propagation of the cash crop.
Stakeholders say this is hardly enough to haul the sector back to profitability.
Today, pyrethrum production is largely centred on Nakuru, which manages 520 metric tonnes per year. This is hardly enough for the seven processors scrambling to buy the scarce dry flowers.
Nakuru alone has the potential to produce more than 34,000 metric tonnes of flowers, making it the darling of investors.
The county government has only been able to enrol nearly 600 farmers and distribute 3.06 million seedlings which were planted on 139 acres as at the end of 2018.
Kentegra, an American firm, has contracted more than 2,000 farmers and has issued more than 11 million seedlings. The company is also putting up a multimillion-shilling laboratory in Nairobi.
Other processors which are contracting farmers include Africhem, which has so far netted 333 growers.
The investment underlines Kenya’s huge potential, with experts estimating that the country can generate up to Sh8 billion in direct earnings to farmers while revenue from the export of the refined extract could earn the country another Sh6 billion in foreign exchange.
On paper, and in fact, agriculture is the engine of Kenya’s economy, and the government must do all it can to put its money where its mouth is.
Pyrethrum is one starting point.