Bernard Nzaro admires cashew nuts on his farm in Tezo, Kilifi County. [Marion Kithi, Standard] 

Three decades after the collapse of the State-owned Kenya Cashew Nut Limited factory in Kilifi, the industry continues to face major problems, with farmers feeling the heat.

The growth of the crop has dropped significantly as most farmers abandoned it due to low prices for raw cashew nuts yielding varieties and lack of capacity in value addition by local farmers, among other challenges.

When the factory collapsed, so did the hopes and fortunes of hundreds of farmers along the coastal belt who directly depended on the crop.

It was a leading cash crop in Kilifi, Kwale and Lamu counties, where some farmers had become millionaires only to be reduced to paupers after the factory went under.

Various stakeholders and Kilifi County government are raising funds to revive the once-thriving cashew nut industry that collapsed more than three decades ago due to mismanagement.

Kilifi County Executive Committee Member for Agriculture Peteson Mwagona said the devolved government had set aside Sh5 million this year to procure cashew nut seedlings for farmers.

“Last year, we had a budget of Sh3 million for seedlings. We distributed 12,000 seedlings to farmers, and they planted immediately after the El Nino rains,” said Mr Mwagona.

Mwagona said they have started a cashew nut rehabilitation programme with over 12,000 old trees already rehabilitated. “We have a pruning and spraying programme that targets old trees. Last year, we pruned 12,000 cashew nut trees in Tezo,” said Mwagona.

He said the county has also set up aggregation centres where farmers take their produce, and it has helped them to connect with buyers, hence eliminating middlemen.

Mwagona said the programme will address the hardships faced by more than 100,000 farmers who lost their livelihood when the cashew nut factory closed.

Mr Kitsao Mlandi, a former worker at the factory, said shares were bought fraudulently by an investor and used as collateral for a bank loan, leading to the collapse of the State firm.

On the day the factory was closed, the Minister of Industrialisation, accompanied by senior government officials, visited the plant and were holed up in a meeting before a decision to shut it down was reached.

“When the company failed to repay the loan, the factory was sold for Sh50 million. Even what remained for the factory was sold as spares for other processors,” Mlandi explained.

Mlandi said, at its height, the factory had 3,000 workers and processed more than 30,000 tonnes of cashew nuts annually. The cashew nut industry’s contribution to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) stood at almost 0.4 per cent.

Officials said the lack of a focused policy since the 1990s spelt doom for the sector, which is now trying to find a footing.

A group consisting of Pwani University, Kaloleni Farmers’ Cooperative Society, and Kilifi County Cooperative Union have received Sh7.5 million in funding from the organisation to enhance the productivity and profitability of cashew nuts in Kilifi County.

The project seeks to establish 30 cashew nut farmer field schools in Kaloleni, Kilifi North, and Magarini sub-county and diversify and intercrop 900 acres of cashew nut orchards.

Dr James Ndiso, head of the project and a senior lecturer in agronomy at Pwani University, says the project will be executed within 34 months.

“We will also establish a cottage industry and two collection centres in each of the three sub-counties for purchasing raw nuts from farmers. We will also create a Sh1 million revolving fund for the purchase of farmers’ produce and equip three processing centres with relevant equipment and logistics,” Dr Ndiso said.

He says there are many exciting opportunities for farmers, including processing cashew nut by-products such as cashew apples into juice and cashew biofuel.

The project will look into the production, processing, and marketing of cashew nuts. It will also target raw nuts from farmers for procurement and delivery to processors.

‘’We are targeting youths and women across the value chain to be able to change the attitude that is there to improve livelihoods,’’ says Ndiso.

With hopes dwindling of ever having a large processing factory similar to the one owned by Kenya Cashew Nut Limited, many farmers opted to cut down their cashew nut trees and abandoned the once-cherished cash crop.

Mr John Garama, a farmer, says it will take much effort to make locals return to cashew nut growing because they have embraced other crops like cassava, mangoes and passion fruits. “We have had bad experiences with the crop because of diseases, drought and the manipulation from middlemen. So it will take much effort to woo farmers to return to cashew nut farming,” he says.

In the 1990s, when the processing factory was closed, a kilogramme of raw cashew nuts fetched between Sh12 and Sh15, a tidy sum at the time. However, over 30 years later, some processors still buy cashew nuts for as low as Sh25-Sh30 a kilo.

A 2022 report by the Nuts and Oil Crops Directorate indicates a total of 23,158 hectares of land in Kilifi, Kwale, Lamu, Tana River, and Taita Taveta counties was covered by cashew nuts, a slight increase from 22,690 hectares in 2021.

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