Horticulture players lock horns over immature avocados claims

Avocados on sale at a market in Gatitu, Nyeri County, on March 22, 2023. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

Kenya has on several occasions had to battle the bad image occasioned by exported avocados that have gone bad while on the shelves and are anything but palatable by the time they reach consumers. 

This has been attributed to the harvest and export of immature fruits, something that a segment of the industry said is getting worse by the day and threatening to erode the gains that the local avocado fruit has made over the years.

Avocado has been tipped to become a major foreign exchange earner especially after Kenya started exporting to the populous countries of India and China. Gaining entry into these markets has propped the Kenyan industry, which has grown into being among the top five exporters of avocados globally and the largest in Africa. 

These gains could, however, be eroded with claims of the emergence of what some players term as a cartel-driven segment that is thriving on immature fruits, some of them stolen from farms.

It is these immature avocados that turn out to be rotten once on the dinner or breakfast table that are now damaging the credibility of the sector in Kenya that has been on the rise. 

“We have had a big problem in this country with immature avocados. This problem comes because of greedy people who in cahoots with some regulators will stuff avocados in mango containers,” Earnest Muthomi chief executive Avocado Society of Kenya told The Standard in an interview.

“What happens is that someone will go to seek clearance for export mangoes from the regulatory bodies. But then they will stuff the container with avocados on the inside but at the front of the container, there will be pallets of mangoes.”

“What then happens is that when these fruits go to the markets, for instance in Europe, and people buy, they do not ripen well. In these supermarkets, you will find avocados from Kenya, Chile, Peru, and other producing countries. If someone buys a Kenyan avocado and it does not ripen well, they will avoid all avocados from Kenya in the future because they will feel they have lost their money.”

The society has in recent weeks been running a campaign against the illegal activities around harvesting and export of immature avocados. It however noted that there is little action from the government, which Muthomi noted could stop the illegal activities. 

“If the regulator and together with other state agencies can put people on the ground, they will nab it before it gets any worse,” he said, adding that the unscrupulous players are so brazen, that they no longer operate covertly. 

“We have suppliers who tell us that so and so is the one who has the contract and has asked us to bring them the fruit. We have people who hang around the packhouses and they tell us who has called them to pack avocados. We have the people who take the avocados from the pack houses and see them being loaded and can see instances where mangoes are mixed with avocados.”

Muthomi’s sentiments have however come under heavy criticism, with the authorities claiming that the society has been making unsubstantiated claims and while at it, tarnishing the industry’s name.

Other industry players also differ with the avocado society, noting that the government has put in place adequate mechanisms to ensure the quality of produce leaving Kenya. The private sector players too have checks that monitor production and export of crops.

“We have seen in the last few days unfortunate comments from different players claiming that Kenya is exporting immature fruits and mixed fruits which is wrong, untruthful, unfounded, and malicious. What we know is that government agencies have been clear… everybody follows the laid down procedures and protocol,” said Okisegere Ojepat chief executive of Fresh Produce Consortium of Kenya in an interview with local media.

This is even as he assured the export markets to continue buying from Kenya, assuring them that “we have good quality produce.. The systems are being followed and there is no reason to be scared of sourcing from Kenya”.

“It is very difficult for immature fruits to leave the country…we have a traceability system for every fruit that leaves here,” he said, noting that exporting producers have to be cleared by different regulators including Horticulture Crop Development and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) which have to okay all fruits before export. Additionally, Ojepat said, the private sector players have a mechanism of monitoring all producers, including the smallholder farmers

“There is no way the market will get immature fruits from Kenya when we have such vigorous arrangements in place to verify the quality of every fruit that leaves Kenya… In any event, there is any case, we have stakeholders to report such malpractices.”

Muthomi however claimed there are attempts to intimidate him.

Trade in the immature fruits, he claimed, is now fuelling other ills in the sector including avocado theft while at the same time leading to farmers getting a raw deal.

“The other thing is that the farmers get very low prices. At the moment, there are places in Muranga where they are buying a fruit at Sh3 when in essence a farmer should be getting Sh20,” said Muthomi.

“It has also been fuelling theft. They have areas or traders where you can take the immature or illegally acquired avocados. At night, we have people with pickups that load the fruit and take them to the packhouse. It is emerging as a very organised criminal enterprise.”

Kenya has in the past focused on Europe as the primary market for its avocados. It has also not been a major exporter but in recent years, the country has strategically tried to enhance its fruit with an eye on growing exports. There has been an intensified promotion of farming as well as improving production practices and meeting international standards.

This has led to an increase in the volume and quality of avocados available for export. Kenya is now ranked among the leading exporters alongside Mexico, Peru, and Chile.

Muthomi said that a surge in malpractices could see the country lose out on what is a promising export venture.

“We have a moral duty to serve farmers whose fruit is being stolen, and the exporter who if the Kenyan avocado gets a bad reputation, our fruit will be downgraded and we will lose out on the market,” he said.

“The officials should go to the ground. These places are not far from Nairobi. Ask the people there what is happening and they will be surprised at how brazen these criminal elements have become.”

Murang’a County, which produces 70 per cent of the avocado, has been at the centre of investigations towards arresting the culprits behind the harvesting of immature avocados following the closure of the harvesting season.

The commodity, an insider claimed, is harvested at night and transported to the destinations early in the morning to avoid vehicles being intercepted by the Horticulture Crops Development Authority (HCDA) officials and the police along the highways.

Murang’a County Avocado Farmers Union Chairman Mr John Mwaniki said some elements are not registered by the Horticulture Crops Development Authority (HCDA) who are behind the illegal harvesting in some farms.

Mwaniki said next week the union will lay strategies in Gatanga, Kandara to nab the culprits out to damage the Kenyan market.

“ Majority of the agents and transporters licensed by the regulator are not involved as only pickups are used in penetrating the villages. As the union we have been approached by the regulator to assist in surveillance during this festive season to monitor the situation,” said Mwaniki.

Avocado Exporters Association of Kenya Chairman Samson Mureithi said the harvest season was closed in November, and the members have complied with the laid down regulations.

“Those playing the monkey tricks need to be exposed, as the association is ready to deal with the rogue members,’ said Mureithi. The association, he added, was educating the members to only deal with mature avocados to protect Kenya's image internationally.

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