Last weekend, I attended a field day at an avocado and macadamia nut farm owned by Kakuzi PLC near the rapidly growing Kenol township in Murang’a County. It was a happy day for all involved, especially as the function doubled up as an occasion to award bonus payments to those growers who have been delivering their fruit to the multinational firm through the years. It was also a great learning experience.
Judging from the happy faces during the function which took almost a whole day, it is clear that the doomsayers who have been predicting that agriculture is on its deathbed are wrong. Peasant farmers, even those owning fewer than 10 trees, received healthy bonuses and went home smiling. The smiles were understandably wider on the faces of a few major growers who have invested heavily in private orchards.
The reason for this is very simple. Instead of selling their produce to exploitative middlemen as they had been doing, they were advised to join up in groups of smallholders and deliver their produce though co-operative societies. In fact, before the advent of visionary leadership in Murang’a County, each avocado was selling for Sh10 or less, regardless of size or maturity. The brokers would then earn anything from Sh15-Sh30 a piece — without owning a single avocado tree. The same fruit goes for at least Sh170 in European and Chinese markets.
This, obviously, is capitalism gone mad, but what did the peasants know? They had debts to settle, school fees and medical bills to pay, and food to eat. It was only after the arrival of an enlightened county government that things began to change, with stringent rules that made the broker redundant and ensured that the farmers earned the fruits of their labour. When this happened, hordes of brokers descended on ignorant farmers in Kiambu County for supplies.
This will obviously continue until Kiambu farmers also organise themselves into co-operative societies and sell their produce directly for export. But for this to happen, they will require a leadership which has so far been lacking in the county. Perhaps the new leaders should have a frank chat with Murang’a Governor Mwangi wa Iria to find out how he got rid of leeches.
Last Friday, I finally understood why the governor is popular; he has the interest of the small farmer in mind. The first rule his county assembly is considering is to set the time for the start of the picking season. In previous years, exporters were delivering immature or diseased fruits, thus hurting the export market and the farmers’ pockets. Secondly, the county assembly wants to ensure only branded products are delivered. If, for instance, you cannot prove how many acres of land under avocado you own, then you cannot sell the produce.
However, avocado farming will also have to jump over a hurdle placed by its potentially largest market, China, on exports. The Chinese will not accept fresh fruit. The conditions placed on those salivating for the market were so stringent as to lock out small farmers and even large exporters. Slicing and freezing the fruits and then ensuring they are shipped in cold-rooms has proved to be a huge burden, making one wonder whether those who negotiated such terms knew what they were doing.
For all practical purposes, this giant market is non-existent at the moment, and until the Chinese relax those rules, it will remain closed for the foreseeable future. However, markets elsewhere are still open, and the only danger is that since many Kenyans have discovered that this fruit could become lucrative, sooner or later there may be a glut in the world market.
All that the farmers can do now is to hope that this won’t happen any time soon, and that the quality of our exports will be superior to those from Mexico and other Latin American countries.
In the meantime, one would hope that what is happening in Murang’a could be emulated in Kiambu County. So far, the county leaders, due to avarice and acute myopia, have been obsessed with allowing the purchase of all the fertile land previously under coffee to realtors who are building concrete structures all over the place and calling them “cities” or “gated communities”.
No doubt they are attracted to the taxes such investors pay and other very personal considerations, but the upshot is that land on which food and cash crops can grow is dwindling fast.
In any case, these houses don’t come cheap, which means that the rich are building them for the rich and the poor are left with nothing. Now that Kiambu has a leadership which is well-versed in matters agriculture, it is hoped that this trend will be halted and measures taken to empower small farmers with incentives to grow crops that will lift them from poverty. Deputy Governor James Nyoro has a lot of work at hand.
Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor ([email protected])