Why most households are dropping tomatoes off their menu

Kenya: Phillip Abuya has seen a drastic change in his diet, thanks to soaring tomato prices, in a complex phenomenon that has altered the meal composition for millions of other households across Kenya.

Tomatoes have fallen off his shopping list, and have been readily replaced by processed flavouring additives such as Royco and tomato paste. Traditionally considered an essential ingredient in cooking across the country, Abuya says he cannot afford to buy tomatoes at the current prices that are as high as Sh17 apiece.

Corner shops in some residential estates are selling three large tomatoes for Sh50, and Sh10 for a medium-sized one. “I have to make do with the artificial additives when I cook,” said the 27-year-old accounting graduate who is yet to find a job. A typical meal he prepares consists of ugali and sukuma wiki.

His situation is replicated in most households, especially across Nairobi, at least according to Jeremiah Njeru, who operates a grocery store in Buru Buru.

Njeru told Weekend Business at his stall that the current prices are at record levels since he started his trade in 1990. “It has never been this expensive,” he says, adding that most of his customers have not visited his store in weeks. As a result, his tomato sales have gone down by more than half in a situation that is definitely replicated with other sellers.

A box of tomatoes weighing about 50kg is now selling at Sh8,000, Njeru said, which is more than double the ordinary prices. Even worse for consumers, the wholesalers have reduced the weight of tomatoes in the box by 15 kg, down from an average of 65kg. “Previously, the tomatoes were heaped in the boxes that we buy in, but now that’s changed,” he says. Njeru is hopeful that the trend will be reversed and have his customers come back to him.

Apart from the concerns of consumers and retailers, the soaring tomato prices are having an unprecedented effect on inflation as tracked by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. Numbers collected from the markets indicate that retail prices for tomatoes were 36.8 per cent higher last month, compared to July last year. A kilo was selling at Sh97.43 compared to Sh71.24 last year, significantly fuelling the rise of the cost of living from 6.02 per cent to 7.67 per cent.

“This was mainly as a result of observed increase in the prices of several food commodities outweighing the price falls in other food items,” the statistics agency said in its latest cost-of-living tracking report. Martin Nyaga, a wholesale trader at Nairobi’s Wakulima market, says the current prices are a product of many factors, including diseases and bad weather across several tomato-growing areas in Kenya.

“There has been a massive crop failure in regions like Mwea where our tomato supplies come from,” Nyaga told Weekend Business on Thursday.

Currently, the country’s supplies are being sourced from Loitoktok along the common border with Tanzania, which has experienced warmer conditions since May.

“When you factor in transport costs and competition, you understand why tomatoes are this expensive,” Nyaga said, adding that wholesalers like him were fetching the produce from the farms at about Sh6,000 per box.

While tomato farmers are obviously making a killing amid the biting shortage, households are feeling the weight of a more complicated menu. With most parts of the country relying on the produce from Loitoktok, it has become a nationwide crisis.