Godfrey Wachira, a manager at a farm in Subukia, Nakuru County, confers with two women as he gestures, trying hard to convince them that he will call them.
And when they leave, the Seeds of Gold team learns that the two were part of a group of 30 workers who had been temporarily laid off due to disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. They worked on a farm called EATMO, of the highway from Subukia to Laikipia.
“We had no choice,” says Wachira, adding that sending the workers home was quite disturbing.
Inside one of their six greenhouses, two women are busy, one harvesting basil as the other loads the produce onto a pickup truck parked outside.
The produce appears destined for the market but that is until Wachira opens up. “That is waste. We are taking it to one section of the farm for decomposition,” he says.
Each of the two greenhouses measures 45 feet by 8 feet. The basil was expected to yield 200kg weekly, worth Sh78,800.
One kilogramme of the herb fetches some 3.4 euros (Sh394) in the export market. “I had planted capsicum in one of the greenhouses but uprooted the crop for the more lucrative basil,” says Wachira, adding, “Unfortunately, because of the disease I have not even exported once.”
Two other greenhouses are filled with beautifully sprouting chives. Wachira explains that the crop was harvested last month and disposed of because there was no market for it.
“This was about 200 kilos with an export value of 1,240 euros (Sh143,592). This will be my losses every month if the export market does not open up soon,” says the farm manager.
Inside the three-acre farm’s packing house, there are dozens of cartons used in the export process, but they are now idle. The cold room also remains colder and empty.
Ordinarily, this room would have been full of produce, ready for delivery to the airport for the export market. It is about a month since EATMO exported any produce.
Wachira had got used to the situation as he was also selling produce in the local market, in particular gooseberries at the Nairobi City Market.
“We used to use public transport to send the fruits to Nairobi at an average cost of Sh600 per consignment. But movement of matatus from Nakuru to Nairobi was affected by the partial lockdown.
“If we are to use private trucks to transport the produce to Nairobi because food transporters are allowed to pass the roadblocks, the cost would shoot to between Sh18,000 to Sh20,000, which is unsustainable,” he says.
Wachira recounts that he would send 250, 250g packs of the berries to Nairobi every week, with each pack going for Sh270.
“I would have sold the gooseberries in Nakuru if people had embraced them, but there is no market here. So, most of it is going to waste.”
His exporting agent, he says, was working to enrol him in the European Union-funded Market Access Upgrade Programme (MARKUP), which aims to promote markets for produce, including herbs, internationally.
He was to join the training to improve his production and access to the export market but that now hangs in the balance.
Besides herbs and spices, the project implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, among other partners, also promotes macadamia, groundnuts, mango, chilli and passion fruits value chain.
The farm’s plight mirrors that of many other fresh-produce exporters even as the export market starts to open up, with Kenya Airways shipping out 40,000 tonnes of fresh produce this week.
Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya chief executive Hosea Machuki says Kenya would export normally an average of 5,000 tonnes of fresh produce weekly.
However, due to the effects of Covid-19, the country is now exporting between 1.2-1.3 tonnes.
“We are exporting less than 30 per cent of what was being exported before the Covid-19 pandemic. This means we are losing 70 per cent of everything, including labour, produce and income,” says Machuki.
The fresh-produce sector employs about 300,000-350,000 persons, 75 per cent of whom are casuals, and have been laid off.
While demand for some produce has declined, growers also have to grapple with high unsustainable freight costs.
“One kilogramme of fresh produce would be charged $1.5 (Sh150) but the cost has since doubled,” says Machuki
The freight cost for cut flowers ranged between Sh180 and Sh200 per kilo but the charges have risen to between Sh320 and Sh350, he notes.
Despite the losses, he says flower farms have to harvest their crop, get a tractor to run over the harvested
produce, dispose of it, and still irrigate and apply fertiliser on the crops in the greenhouses.
- Each of the two greenhouses measures 45 feet by 8 feet. The basil was expected to yield 200kg weekly, worth Sh78,800.
- Two other greenhouses are filled with beautifully sprouting chives. Wachira explains that the crop was harvested last month and disposed of because there was no market for it.
- Wachira had got used to the situation as he was also selling produce in the local market, in particular gooseberries at the Nairobi City Market.
- Wachira recounts that he would send 250, 250g packs of the berries to Nairobi every week, with each pack going for Sh270.