Almost every homestead you visit in coastal counties especially Kilifi, you will find a coconut palm tree dotting the compound. According to Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation more than 80 per cent of coastal farm households derive their livelihood either directly or indirectly from the coconut tree. But the sector has not been doing too well over the years thanks to drought and a myriad of issues.
But farmers hopes have been renewed following President William Ruto’s directive that his government will revive the sector.
The collapse of the sub-sector’s cooperative societies in early 1980s denied farmers bargaining power and opportunity to exploit potential markets in neighbouring Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi where coconut products are either lacking or still under restrictive government policies. This created an opportunity for middlemen to pay farmers uncompetitive prices for their produce.
Good old days
The Smart Harvest interviewed a number of farmers in Kilifi county and most expressed their frustration with the crop over the years but are now pegging all their hopes on the new government. Many of the farmers we spoke to reminisced the good old days and called on the State to remember them.
“In the 1990s, I was earning as much as my teacher friends. Today, I am nowhere. There is so much uncertainty, the income from coconut has remained stagnant for years,” says Kitsao Mlewa, a farmer in Rabai, Kilifi county. He’s been selling a 90-kg bag of coconuts at Sh1,500.
At the moment, the farm gate price for a single coconut range from Sh10 and Sh50 while at the market it sells at Sh30 to Sh100, depending on size. Agricultural experts have attributed the rise in the price to a decrease in local production due to the prevailing drought and premature harvesting of young coconut trees for timber.
Ageing trees, that are low-yielding are a common feature on most farms in Kilifi county.
‘’We have also been struggling with ageing and unproductive plants over the years and were getting inadequate returns,’’ Mlewa says.
Many farmers are harvesting premature nuts, probably due to rising demand.
In Matsangoni village, almost 15 kilometres from Kilifi town, farmers are worried that surviving trees will die from drought.
Wilson Kiwele, a farmer with a five-acre coconut farm, also raised valid concerns.
“Those trees over there have been producing coconuts since before my father was born,” says Kiwele.
Previously, he had more than 600 coconut trees, but just a dozen survived the drought.
“The rains have been rare and the trees are drying up. The yields are low and the prices we get are equally bad. We are going through hard times. The government needs to help us because this is our only source of livelihood,” Kiwele says.
Salim Kalu, a farmer from Miwani, celebrated his first bumper harvest in May last year.
“When the drought worsened I drilled a dam and irrigated my trees. That is why the trees are still standing tall and producing fruit,’’ Kalu said.
Owing to the challenge of drought, many farmers have abandoned farming the crop.
Impact of climate change
Robert Katana says harsh weather has affected the yield on his farm. In April last year, his young trees died because of drought and pests.
Legislative inconsistencies in the coconut sub sector have also negatively affected the growth of the coconut industry.
To push for change, in September last year, Rabai Member of Parliament Kenga Mupe said he will petition the government to compensate coconut farmers in Coastal counties for the losses incurred from drought.
“We all know there has been a severe drought. The community has relied on coconut farming, but many coconut trees have dried up and people have lost their source of income. I will table a motion in Parliament to have the government compensate coconut farmers so they can have a source of livelihood,” he said then.
Disease outbreaks linked to harsh weather have also been a challenge.
Research also shows that coconut diseases in the Coast have been rapidly intensifying due to rising temperatures. In 2006, the coconut crop was attacked by the Lethal Yellowing disease which spilled over from neighbouring Tanzania killing many trees.
Mr Daniel Nguma an Independent consultant with the African Forum for Agricultural Advisory Service (AFAAS) and an agricultural consultant with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation says coconut production in the Coast has been decreasing with time for the past decade due to drought conditions caused by climate change.
“Many farmers still have old trees from traditional seedlings, which yield few nuts. Most of them rely on farm gate prices, which are low and as a result, some farmers have neglected the crop,’’ Nguma says.
According to the agricultural expert, reviving the sector will take a maximum of five to ten years.
‘’To revive the coconut industry, the Ministry of Agriculture together with the Jumuiya ya Kaunti za Pwani, should come up with a coconut revitalisation programme that would run five-to-ten years with proper funding,” Nguma says.
Nguma says through capital funding, optimal processing capacity can be realised which will improve efficiency in the whole value chain.
To realise this, Nguma says efforts ought to be put in place to create a low level of risk and favourable investment climate for both local and foreign actors.
He explains that the revival programme should look at issues along the value chain to enhance production and productivity, planting new trees and rehabilitating the orchards and also initiate the establishment of cottage industries to stop export of the raw coconuts.
‘’There should also be a robust seedlings subsidy programme to the farmers and extension services, training of commercial tree nursery growers who will distribute seedlings to farmers at subsidised prices. There should be great emphasis placed on diversification, not only to enhance exports and attract additional revenues, but also to minimise importation of cheap coconut products and substitutes,” Nguma says.
He adds: “Collection centres can also be owned and operated as business units by farmers and private investors through Public Private Partnership arrangements.”
Experts are in agreement that despite the challenges, coconut farming still has huge potential.
Palm tree furniture
Nuts and Oil Kilifi branch officer Patrick Kiponda, says hotels are now using furniture made of the coconut tree hence posing a threat.
‘’Furniture made from coconut trees has become popular among hoteliers who look for ways of attracting international tourists who have developed a taste for such pieces of furniture like beds and chairs, among others,’’ Kiponda says.
Going forward, he says policies need to be formulated to declare the plant a protected crop and that cutting down of the coconut trees should attract a stiff penalty.
The coconut tree has many uses. Fronds are used as roofing, husks as floor cleaner or charcoal, white flesh can be eaten or processed into oil and the sap makes wine.
Nuts and Oil Crops Directorate (NOCD) says the crop produces over 100 byproducts with the potential to generate over Sh13 billion annually, which represents 0.4 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Currently, the crop’s main product is wine, locally known as mnazi, which NOCD says constitutes 60 per cent, nuts 24 per cent, fronds 12 per cent, while brooms and coco wood constitute 24 and 0.3 per cent respectively.
According to NOCD, in 2019, about 328.125 million litres of coconut wine valued at Sh17.9 billion was produced in the coastal counties.
In the past, there have been efforts to try and revive coconut farming.
In 2019, Kilifi county government funded by DANIDA, imported 6,000 first hybrid coconut seedlings from India and distributed them to 500 farmers.
The hybrid coconut trees take two-and-a-half years to mature and produce over 300 fruits at a time, unlike the traditional African tall coconut trees which take six years to mature and produce 100 fruits at a time.
In July 2008, the government established the Kenya Coconut Development Authority (KCDA) in a move to classify the coconut tree as a “special crop” giving it the same status as coffee and tea.
However KCDA has since been transformed to NOCD under the Agriculture and Food Authority.
Love for coconut goodies
There is also a local demand for coconut that remains insatiable.
Consumers estimate that a household uses three to five coconuts for cooking dishes per day, which significantly raises the daily family budget.
Kelvin Nyale, a hotelier in the outskirts of Kilifi, says it has become almost impossible to cook coconut dishes due to the high price.
A 2022 report by the Nuts and Oil Crops Directorate indicates a total of 84,906 hectares of land in Kilifi, Kwale, Lamu, Tana River and Taita Taveta counties was covered by coconuts in 2020, compared to 77,556 hectares in 2021.
The report further indicates that 110,013 tones of coconuts valued at Sh5 million were produced in 2020, a slight decrease from 86,554 tones valued at Sh5.5 million in 2021. The value increased due to stable demand from local processors and the export market, due to the lower supply of nuts. The report also indicates that some of the harvested produce was exported.
Industry players reported increased demand from traditional buyers of Kenya’s produce as the world recovers from the covid-19 market disruptions. The USA still remained the major buyer of Kenyan nuts, followed by Germany and Netherlands which are entry hubs for Kenyan products destined to the European Union.