Kenyan farmers have received clearance to start exporting avocados to China.
This follows an agreement signed between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Thursday. It comes barely a month after experts from the Chinese National Plant Protection Organisation completed an inspection at key avocado production points in Kenya in a process aimed at opening the Chinese market to Kenyan avocados.
The clearance is a big deal for Kenyan farmers who will now access more than 1.4 billion potential consumers.
Wellington Mutisya, an avocado farmer in Makueni County is especially thrilled.
For close to five years, Mutisya has been selling hass avocados at throw-away prices to middlemen.
He gets offers as low as Sh6 per fruit from buyers who visit his two-hectare farm in Makueni where he has 200 avocado trees spread out on the farm. On most occasions, Mutisya settles for Sh10.
He is sometimes forced to sell the fruits at lower prices when buyers cite stringent requirements by importing countries. For lack of knowledge on how the export market operates, Mutisya often falls for lies told by middlemen.
Mutisya’s woes aren’t an isolated case in the avocado value chain characteristic of exploitative middlemen who go around farms collecting the fruits at a cheap price and selling the same at inflated prices to established export companies.
Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKuat) Marketing executive, Meshack Kimondo says Kenyan avocado farmers don’t enjoy similar privileges as those enjoyed by other cash crop farmers.
“An average avocado farmer in Kenya never gets to the exporting company,” says Kimondo.
He adds: “Coffee and tea farmers have well established cooperatives that protect them and help them access market. But when it comes to avocado, we don’t even have a policy that talks about avocado market.”
Besides, avocado farmers in Kenya practise small scale farming and therefore lack market bargaining power, according to the JKuat researcher. He says most farmers own a tree or two which limits them to a small market.
But with the country opening up more export markets for avocados, Mutisya intends to do things differently.
“I am tired of taking prices that middlemen offer. I want to work with export companies directly. I have already identified some companies and I am putting everything in place,” he says.
Mutisya intends to have 1,000 avocado trees by 2020. With the right volumes, he will sign a supply deal directly with a credible exporter to buy the fruits for at least Sh30 per fruit.
Charles Mutai, a farmer in Sotik says he has been selling avocados from his five indigenous trees at a throw away price.
“I sell them to middlemen who go around homesteads collecting avocados when they are in season. When the buyers don’t come, I give them to neighbours,” says Mutai.
The most he makes from each fruit is Sh5. At some point, the Sotik farmer made only Sh2,000 from the 700 avocados he harvested.
After learning of the growing avocado export market, Mutai interested a savings group he belongs to with the possibility of leasing a piece of land to grow avocados.
“Now that China is buying from us, there is hope for a reliable market. I have talked to my saving partners and we are at advanced stages of serious avocado farming,” he says.
In their inspection, two Chinese experts toured Kakuzi farms that are big in avocado export in Eldoret. Other places visited were Kephis laboratories in Muguga and an inspection centre at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
It is estimated that when the agreement is fully implemented, the Chinese market will absorb over 40 per cent of Kenya’s avocado produce, making it one of the largest importers of the fruit.
Kenya emerged the biggest avocado exporter in Africa after selling Sh7.8bn worth of avocados in 2017, beating South Africa which had maintained top position for long.
But all the good news notwithstanding, a lot of challenges still stand in the way of Kenyan avocado farmers.
These include lack of proper knowledge on varieties, quality of seedlings and crop husbandry given that avocado is a new cash crop in Kenya. Additionally, farmers who are not directly connected to the buyer suffer the raw end of the deal at the hands of exploitative middlemen.
Avocado Society of Kenya chief executive Ernest Muthomi says farmers who buy low quality seedlings risk up to 30 per cent loss.
“For lack of knowledge, some farmers buy uncertified seedlings that have viral diseases. It is only after three years when the produce is low that they realise that they bought poor quality seedlings,” says Muthomi.
He says poor quality seedlings are also those contaminated with root-borne pathogens.
Kenya propagates about 50 avocado varieties which include the local varieties like the jumbo and newly introduced varieties like hass and the fuerte. At 80 per cent, hass in the most preferred variety on the export market.
Hass avocado is generally liked because of its fast maturity, longer shelf life and high production. The tree that takes a maximum of four months to mature can produce more than 1, 000 fruits in a year. A ripe hass avocado can stay for 14 days after ripening before it rots away. The fruit is liked more because of its sweetness and richness in fats.
But farmers who stick to local varieties still have a market in the United Arab Emirates.
Muthomi says that because of the high demand of avocados, brokers come in and sell immature fruits which shrivel instead of ripening when they get to the market.
“Greedy brokers have become an issue of concern in the avocado value chain. They buy immature avocadoes which enter the export market and reflects badly on us on the global market,” he says.
The society which registers players across the avocadoagribusiness, he says, exists to champion interests of the avocado agribusiness and to instill good practices along the value chain.
The society is today awarding exemplary players especially farmers who have continuously demonstrated hard work, resilience and high ethical standards. The winners will be in categories of avocado grower of the year, avocado exporter of the year, avocado person of the year and avocado hotelier of the year.
“We will be celebrating the fact that we are now a lead producer and exporter of avocado in the whole of Africa. This is no mean achievement,” hays Muthomi adding that there will be agribusiness and nutritional talks to boost avocadoconsumption in Kenya.
At 40 per cent, Kenya measures poorly on the regional scale in terms of local consumption of avocados. In South Africa, some 40 per cent all of the country’s avocado produce is consumed locally.
Muthomi encourages local consumption of avocados to tackle the country’s nutritional challenges. Avocado is acclaimed for its high nutritional benefits and is added to various dishes due to its good flavour and rich texture. Nutritionally, it contains more than 20 different vitamins and minerals. It also contains high amounts of magnesium, manganese, copper, iron, zinc, phosphorous.
Muthomi says avocado farming didn’t have a good start in Kenya from the beginning.
“When the Portuguese introduced avocados in Kenya around 1902, the fruit was considered food for the dogs. It is dogs who sat at the foot of avocado trees and ate the ripe fruits that fell down,” he says.