Why new avocado Bill is causing jitters
Murang’a County is the largest producer of avocado in Kenya and major gains have been made in the sector, but a new Bill by the county government has sharply divided opinion.
While Murang’a Governor Mwangi wa Iria supports the Murang’a County Avocado Production, Processing and Marketing Bill 2020, Senator Irungu Kang’ata and many avocado farmers and traders, are opposed to it.
Governor Wa Iria says the Bill means well and is aimed at regulating the production and processing of avocado and protecting farmers from cartels.
The governor argues that standardised rules for production, transportation, storing, and packaging will ensure quality and make the fruit more attractive in the international market and lucrative for farmers.
Senator Kang’ata, on the other hand, feels the Bill is flawed and may curtail a sector that holds promise for farmers in the back of declining coffee and tea growth.
Caught in the middle of this tug of war are avocado farmers who have been cultivating the crop faithfully to the point that it has caught the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture who have been pushing it aggressively as the magic crop that will change the fortunes of the country.
Other than Mexico and the South and Central American countries of Dominican Republic, Peru, Indonesia, Colombia and Brazil, Kenya is one of the leading global avocado producers.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Corporate Statistical Database, there were some 14,500 hectares under avocado in Kenya in 2018 which produced 234,000 tonnes of the fruit.
The Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) reports that Kenyan farmers made Sh10 billion from the export of about 80,000 tonnes of avocados in the 2018-2019 financial year.
In that same period, the National Coffee Exchange reported that coffee farmers earned Sh11 billion, only slightly more than avocado farmers.
However, avocado prices in Kenya are still one of the lowest among avocado producing countries.
In light of this, the Murang’a County Avocado Bill wants the county to inspect the standards of nurseries, farms, transportation and processors to standardise the production.
Every step of the avocado production cycle from when the farmer decides he wants to cultivate the fruit, to when the seed germinates in the nursery until they are packed into crates in refrigerated lorries will be regulated.
It proposes far reaching licensing laws on harvesting, processing and marketing of avocado and establishes collection centres and creates the post of inspectors. It also creates a County Avocado Production, Processing and Marketing Directorate which will register farmers, nurseries, transporters, traders and processors.
Farmers will have to procure their seedlings from nurseries licensed by the county government and after cultivating the trees, they will be required to inform the county before they can fell the trees.
The farmer’s application will have to state the number of trees they want to fell, the variety and the age of the trees. They also have to give their reason for felling the trees and how many will be left behind when they do.
According to the bill, the trees can only be felled if they are senile, past productive age, disease infested, damaged by calamity, cause hazard to life or property or the farmer wants to change his land use.
The county will also allow felling of the trees if the orchard is overcrowded and thinning is necessary to improve productivity.
However, the proposed law also recommends that three trees are planted for every one felled.
With these stringent measures, Senator Kang’ata believes the Bill will overburden farmers, traders, retailers and transporters with licences.
Should the law be adopted as it is, nursery owners have to give quarterly returns of the number of seedlings they are raising and the number they have sold and distributed. They have to provide returns to the county government and the source of the seeds.
The county shall also prescribe the harvesting seasons and have discussions on the dates for the different avocado produce for various ecological zone.
“Every grower and dealer shall harvest or buy their avocado produce within the prescribed harvesting seasons, conferred dates and according to the ecological zones,” the Bill states.
By prescribing the harvesting times, the county hopes to deter the practice of avocado theft and harvesting of immature avocado fruits which are later rejected in the global market.
Statistics show that Murang’a County made up to Sh5 billion in avocado sales last year alone and for that reason Governor Wa Iria maintains that the county’s fruits should be protected by maintaining the standards on the farms and educating the farmers.
The Bill also proposed that all avocados on transit shall be packed in crates and transported in refrigerated vehicles to avoid damage.
At present, gunny bags full of avocado dot the sides of the roads every morning as farmers await traders to procure their harvests.
Majority of small holder farmers agree with Kang’ata that the Bill will negatively affect farmers’ yields and eventually kill the budding avocado farming.
Kenya begun exporting avocado to China last year but the conditions are tough and put the market out of reach for the smallholder.
Ernest Muthomi, CEO of Avocado Society of Kenya, an association of growers, exporters and other players in the value-chain said the Bill grants powers that are already vested upon Agricultural and Foods Authorities by law.
“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 a parallel association outside county management should not be compelled to register with the county. There is likelihood the county will use this power to deny farmers parallel association and create a monopolistic market for its cooperative,” Senator Kang’ata said.
It has also been observed that the proposed penalties under the said Bill are too punitive.
For instance, a person who disposes avocado rejects without authority of the county government will be committing an offence. Murang’a County Assembly has recommended withdrawal of the contentious bill, asking the county to redraft it before it is tabled.
The county also noted there are views from farmers and traders that have not been captured.
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