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Why I am opposed to Murang’a County Avocado Production, Processing and Marketing Bill 2020

COMMENTARY
By Irungu Kangata | March 12th 2020

Kenya is becoming a notable producer of the much sought-after green gold -- avocado. Interestingly, Murang’a County currently accounts for about 80 per cent of the total avocado production in the country.

The reason for this is because of the county’s climate. Subtropical avocado species require a climate without frost and with little wind. High winds reduce the humidity, dehydrate the flowers and affect pollination.

When even a mild frost occurs, premature fruit drop may occur. However, the hass variety can tolerate temperatures of even −1°C.

Avocado trees also need well-aerated soils, ideally more than 1m deep. According to experts, it takes approximately 70 litres of applied fresh ground or surface water, not including rainfall or natural moisture in the soil, to grow one avocado. All these conditions are present in Murang’a.

This is a big blessing for our county, especially considering that avocados are now in great demand abroad.

It is an opportunity we cannot afford to squander. That’s why we must do everything to improve productivity and ensure that farmers reap maximum benefits from the fruit.

Without a doubt, good legislation is important if we are to achieve this goal.

However, I am convinced that the Murang’a County Avocado Production, Processing and Marketing Bill 2020 will work against farmers’ interests and undermine their ambition to exploit the opportunity provided by the new avocado markets abroad.

Several permits

I am opposed to this Bill for various reasons, but will only highlight a few.

First, if passed, the Bill will introduce several permits which various avocado stakeholders will have to procure from the county government. These permits will have to be paid for.

Clause 6 will compel avocado nursery operators to obtain a county permit. Clause 7 will compel them to renew the permit annually. Clause  9 will compel the operators to keep statistical returns. Clause 14 and 16 will compel Murang’a avocado retailers, transporters, traders and distributors to register with the county and obtain permits.

The problem is many poor Murang’a farmers, retailers, transporters, and traders may not be able to pay for these permits.

Notably, the fees are not set out in the Bill in express terms and Murang’a County Finance Bill is expected to state the actual amounts. There is a likelihood these fees will be exorbitant.

The farmers will have to load this extra expense onto their selling price, hence making avocados from Murang’a uncompetitive.

Further, this proposal introduces bureaucracy in the value chain. Murang’a County is yet to automate its permit issuance systems. Therefore, farmers will have to travel to where the county offices are to procure the permits. This will cause delays, which is not good for such a perishable commodity.  

Second, Bill negates the ideals of a free market. For example, clause 17 will compel a farmer to procure a movement permit. This will make avocado business in Murang’a lengthy and laborious.

Farmers purchase the avocado seedlings, care for them up to maturity and does the harvesting using their own resources. It follows, therefore, that they should have the freedom to decide to whom to sell their fruits and when to plant or uproot the trees without Murang’a County Government’s interference.

Other counties will make the avocado business easy and Murang’a farmers will lose.

Monopolistic market

Third, clause 15 will compel all farmers’ co-operatives and associations to be registered with the county.

It is a noble idea to pool small-scale farmers into a co-operative to harness economies of scale. However, farmers who decide to form parallel associations outside county management should not be compelled to register with the county. There is a likelihood the county will use this power to deny farmers a parallel association and create a monopolistic market for its cooperative.

Chances of mismanagement of such a monopolistic co-operative are high since it will not have a competition to compel it to innovate.

Government-owned businesses in the world generally fair badly, save where there are very high ethical standards underpinning state-led markets like in China. Several government-run entities have collapsed in Kenya. Murang’a County milk factory in Maragwa is a very noble idea but it currently has problems.

The county’s public enterprises should be run by competent professionals recruited fairly and openly so that the best brains can be employed. So far, there is nothing to suggest this is what the county intends to do.

Fourth, the Bill grants powers that are already vested by law upon Agricultural and Foods Authorities (AFA). For example, Clause 28 of the Bill proposes to set import and export standards for the fruit. This is the work of AFA, hence is a duplication of roles.

Fifth, the proposed penalties under the said Bill are too punitive. Clause 39 proposes to impose a penalty of Sh500,000 or two years imprisonment or both for a violation of any clause of the Bill where the penalty is not specified.

Sixth, the Bill if passed, will enlarge the size of Murang’a County Government unnecessarily. Counties have been expending monies on recurrent expenditure rather than on development.

This makes the counties to be under-developed. Clause 30 creates an entity called the Mediation Committee. Salaries and allowances for the members of this organ undermine the fiscal goal of setting aside more funds for developing Murang’a.

This Bill should be withdrawn. The county should undertake consultative forums comprised of all elected leaders, avocado farmers’ representatives, and other stakeholders. The forums should discuss how avocado business in Murang’a can be improved.

The county government should also set aside funds to support research. This should include researching ways of combating avocado diseases. In particular, there is a disease called black spot which is making Murang’a avocados to lose their edge.

Preliminary findings suggest it is caused by a lack of calcium. If indeed this is the case, the county government should purchase organic calcium and distribute it to farmers.

The governor has suggested that he intends to use the law to introduce a minimum guaranteed return for avocado. This is an excellent idea that can be implemented without the enactment of this Bill.

He can use Murang’a County Finance Bill 2020 to set aside funds to achieve this. If, for instance, he can buy one hass avocado at Sh50, no one would sell his or her avocado to the so-called brokers whom he seems to have an issue with.

Mr Kang’ata is the Senator, Murang’a County and deputy chief whip, Senate.

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