Farmers’ pain as the coronavirus crisis drags on

0
45
A worker at the farm called EATMO in Nakuru County disposes harvested basil that was targeted for the export market, after the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted export operations.

About this time every year, brokers normally descend on avocado farms across the country to buy the fruits and sell to firms that export them to different parts of the world, including Europe and the Middle East.

But with the outbreak of the new coronavirus disease (Covid-19), the brisk business that happens in avocado-growing counties like Murang’a, Kirinyaga, Bomet and Meru is missing.

With most of the airlines grounded and the global market shut as countries battle the disease, things are not rosy for farmers, processors and exporters.

“Only one broker has so far come to us in about a month seeking to buy a piece of the fruit at Sh7 but we declined because a piece normally goes from Sh10-Sh15. We are waiting to see what happens,” says Johnson Nkanata Mwongera, the chairman of Avocado Champions, a fruit growers association with 30 members in Meru.

Mwongera says it is much worse for macadamia nuts, which are mainly exported as they have little local demand.
Some brokers are buying from frustrated farmers a kilo of nuts for Sh80, down from Sh220.

“Farmers are experiencing lots of frustrations right now and the uncertainty surrounding when the situation will normalise is hurting us even further.”

Moses Murithi, a farmer in Tharaka-Nithi County who grows both macadamia and avocados, noted that the situation has put farmers in a deep dilemma.

“We don’t know whether to sell the produce at throwaway prices or hold on hoping that the crisis will end soon or the governments will intervene,” he says, adding brokers are offering as low as Sh60 per kilo of macadamia.

Mwongera notes that farmers who grow Hass avocados are a little better off as the variety remains green and under good storage facilities can last three to four months.

Gideon Gitonga, an avocado farmer in Meru, says from his two acres with 250 trees, he harvests fruits that earn him up to Sh800,000 annually. “Each tree produces a maximum of 1,000 fruits a year, which I sell for between Sh10 and Sh15 each.”

Peter Wangara, a partner at Limbua Group, a macadamia processing firm, says the business has been affected greatly due to the stifled export market. “So many of our orders have been cancelled. This disease has presented one of the biggest challenges to our business,” he says.

CONTRACTED FARMERS

The firm works with contracted farmers, and they are buying the produce from them at between Sh100 and Sh110, drying and storing them and hoping that things will turn around in the coming months.

“Storing requires that the moisture level be maintained at 3 per cent, something that the farmers can’t manage because they lack specialised dryers. So if we can’t pick the produce from the farm, it will go to waste. We are basically buying and storing,” Wangara explains.

The local market for macadamia, he says, comprises only 2-3 per cent of their factory’s total production.

Gideon Gitonga on his avocado farm in Meru
Gideon Gitonga on his avocado farm in Meru County. The disease has presented one of the biggest challenges to the farmers’ businesses. PHOTO | CAROLINE WAMBUI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

“In Kenya, not so many people are using macadamia for value addition, for instance, in baking. The other disadvantage is that supermarkets only offer a fraction of the market to what we process and most consumers purchase smaller amounts for eating as snacks, which cannot sustain the market.”

Similarly, for avocados, Wangara says the market is largely shut in Europe. “I tried sending 200kg of avocados to Europe and I wasn’t successful because of the new bureaucracy due to the disease. There are so many things to be done, including clearing and distribution to the supermarkets, which are only opening for an hour or two.”

According to Wangara, cargo can leave the country for any market but the fact that most countries are under lockdown, selling the produce becomes much difficult.

“With the lockdowns, there are tougher restrictions imposed by the importing countries, making exporting a very difficult task if not impossible,” he says.

At Equator Flower Farm in Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County, the disease has dealt a huge blow to their flower exports, forcing them to scale down operations after losing over 70 per cent of their market.

However, Micah Cheserem, the owner of the farm, is optimistic that the flower industry is slowly recovering from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The past weeks have been worse but currently we have started to see demand for flowers pick up in Europe. This is after markets like St Petersburg in Russia lifted a total lockdown. Florist shops that operate 24 hours in Germany have also started to re-open,” he says.

Flower growers, he says, have been badly hit because most of their customers are florists who were forced to stay home due to total lockdowns imposed in their countries.

“But we have been trying to target supermarkets because most of them are allowed to operate for people to pick up various products at specific hours.”

But growers have to grapple with high freight costs. He notes that currently, a cargo plane must fly from South Africa to Nairobi to Europe, thus, limiting space to carry farm produce like flowers or vegetables. However, he lauded the government for allowing the transportation of the farm produce from Eldoret to Nairobi.

“We are happy Kenya Airways cargo flights are resuming since we now have some market for our produce in Europe.”
Cheserem says the farm had to furlough most of its workers, with a few remaining to run essential operations.

“We sent the staff on paid leave. We don’t want to lay them off for now but if the crisis goes beyond three months, then we might be forced to re-strategise,” he says.

“We appeal to the government to fast-track remission of value added tax refunds to enable our businesses stay afloat.”

Additional reporting by Stanley Kimuge

****

Get it fast

Macadamia demand on rise

Since 2013, Kenya has been registering impressive growth in volumes of avocados exported, rising from position 11 in 2014 to emerge tops in 2017, overtaking South Africa.

For macadamia, annual production has increased nearly fourfold in about a decade, from 11,000 tonnes in 2009 to over 40,000 currently. The global annual production of macadamia stands at 200,000 tonnes.

Kenya is ranked one of the world’s largest producers and the second-largest exporter of the nuts.

In Summary

  • With the bulk of the export market for fresh produce shut and the local demand stifled due to restrictions to curb Covid-19 spread, most farmers are counting losses as harvest goes to waste
  • With the lockdowns, there are tougher restrictions imposed by the importing countries, making exporting a very difficult task if not impossible
  • However, Micah Cheserem, the owner of the farm, is optimistic that the flower industry is slowly recovering from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Flower growers, he says, have been badly hit because most of their customers are florists who were forced to stay home due to total lockdowns imposed in their countries.