The silver lining in the midst of a pandemic

Avocado Society of Kenya CEO Ernest Muthomi (right) with an avocado farmer in Mt Kenya region. [Boniface Gikandi]

While there have been very few silver linings to the coronavirus pandemic, for avocado growers and exporters in Kenya, the story has been different.

Geoffrey Kipchumba, an avocado farmer in Moiben, Uasin Gishu County, says when he ventured into avocado farming a few years ago, he still had doubts as to whether there would be a ready market for his fruits.

He held on to the hope that the county government, which has been aggressively marketing avocado farming as a sustainable agri-venture in the region since 2014, would ensure his avocados don’t rot in the farm once they were ready for harvesting.

With his first harvest coming in July, Kipchumba had all the reasons to worry when the Covid-19 pandemic started sweeping across the globe. When the country was first put under a lockdown he started anticipating the worst.

“Avacado is quite new to us but when the county government convinced us that it is the gold of the future. I decided to give it a try but started with 1,000 seedlings because I didn’t want to take a major risk before knowing what was in it for me,” he says.

However, things turned out different from how he anticipated. When picking began, buyers camped at his farm - something he had never witnessed as a maize farmer. Having earned more than he expected, Kipchumba is now in the process of expanding his avocado farm.

Kipchumba’s story is not different from those of many other farmers growing avocados across the county. Currently, more than 2,000 acres of land have been put under avocado farming in Uasin Gishu County.

For Ann Wangeci, a horticulture farmer in Nyeri, switching from coffee to avocado farming was the best decision she ever made as a farmer. This year, her returns were even better compared to previous years contrary to her expectations.

Even though there were a few challenges especially in terms of movement during the lockdown, she says she has all reasons to say this was a good year for her.

“Of course there were challenges when we couldn’t move from one region to the other due to travel restrictions put in place by the government to curb the spread of Covid-19 as I don’t live where the farm is, but when the government started issuing out permits to those offering essential services, we were able to deal with the challenge,” she adds.

According to the Avocado Society of Kenya Chief Executive Officer, Ernest Muthomi, despite the pandemic, avocado exports surpassed 64,000 tonnes this year, which was higher than last year’s volumes.

Muthomi says the demand for avocados went up both locally and internationally.

“Our avocado exports this year exceeded 64,000 tonnes compared to last year’s 43,000. The demand for fruits and fresh vegetables has continually been on the rise since the pandemic began. Of course when countries were put on lockdown, we experienced challenges as restaurants and cafes are usually our first point of distribution in the international market, so when they were closed there was a slight slump in demand but this didn’t last long,” says Muthomi.

However, even with demand rising, exporters had to dig deeper into their pockets to cover the high freight charges. Some buyers also cancelled their orders which meant scaling down on exports.

As passenger numbers dwindled due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions, major airlines hiked prices for air freight. In some instances, the costs went up three-fold. 

For instance, while airfreight charges from Kenya to Amsterdam were ranging from Sh80 ($0.8) to Sh150 ($1.5) per kilogramme of produce before Covid-19 hit, this went up to as much as Sh400 ($4) for the same cargo.

According to Nathan Loyd, the Chief Executive Officer of AvoVeg Ltd, a leading fresh produce exporter, one of the major challenges his company experienced during the lockdown is having to wait longer for the fruits to arrive at destination countries.

“Our transit time to Europe was quite a challenge during the lockdown. Usually, our containers take approximately 25 days, but during that time some countries couldn’t allow them in. Some remained suspended in the high seas for as long as 60 days. The maximum shelf life of an avocado is around 45 days, so you can imagine the kind of losses we incurred,” notes Mr Loyd.

However, despite this challenge, the AvoVeg CEO says the cost for fruits went up by about 10 per cent. And unlike Mr Muthomi who is of the opinion that despite Covid-19 avocado farmers have reaped well this year from what they sow, Loyd says this has been one of the most difficult years for his business.

Some farmers, he adds, were forced to feed their fruits to animals as many exporters were forced to scale down on the volumes of fruits they exported to Europe which is the leading market for Kenyan avocados.

“We had to abandon shipping to Spain which is one of our major markets as the country was largely affected by the pandemic. Our shipments reduced from 20 containers a month before Covid to around three to four. This clearly shows how bad things were for us as well as the farmers we buy fruits from,” Loyd adds.

As the avocado season comes to an end, Loyd’s only prayer is that things will have gone back to normal next year in February when the next one begins.

“Our main challenge now remains on how we will settle our debts since most of the time we do this business using borrowed capital. Banks expect to be paid and no one cares whether your fruits went bad in the high seas or not,” he adds.

According to Muthomi, the future even looks brighter for avocado growers and exporters as the demand continues to rise.

The society has also been looking into penetrating fresh markets such as India and already plans to export Kenyan avocados there, he says, are at advanced stage.

“We are also in the process of establishing a liaison office in Dubai which is one of our strategic partners in the business. The future is quite promising for us and it is our work as a society to ensure our avocados continue to fetch better prices and do well in the market,” he adds.

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