The rise and fall of cashew farming in Coast

Mr Bernard Nzaro admires a section of Cashew Nuts fruits in its early stage at  his farm in Tezo,  Kilifi

Shida Mwandoro, a resident of Kaembeni in Ganze sub-County recalls with nostalgia how three decades ago, cashew nut farming was the main economic activity in Kilifi County. The sector was doing so well, it transformed the lives of locals. Then somewhere along the way, things began to go south.

Politics and mismanagement crept in and the once booming Kenya Cashew nut Limited became a shadow of its former self.

Following the series of challenges, it was privatised in 1987 and finally closed in 1990, dealing a devastating blow to farmers in coast whose livelihoods depended on the crop.

The Smart Harvest caught up with a number of veteran farmers who were the beneficiaries of cashewnut farming in its heydays. Mr Mwandoro, 57, who owns a 10-acre farm of cashew trees, remembers how the economy of Kilifi was booming in the 80s, as machines at the vibrant factory roared with life, while farmers continuously supplied it with raw nuts.

Then, Mr Mwandoro was in his late 20s and because he was liquid from the cashewnut cash, he was able to marry his first wife and added a second wife five years later.

“The economy was doing well, and life was good. I was able to save and pay dowry for my two wives using the cashew nuts proceeds,” says Mr Mwandoro.

Additionally, Mr Mwandoro was able to take care of his 17 children with ease and always had disposable income for some luxury.

Education without struggle

“Cashewnut farmers educated their children without struggle. I have a doctor in my house courtesy of cashew nut farming. Life was simply good,’’ recalls Mr Mwandoro.

Mwandoro says the cooperatives used to buy the cashew nuts from the farmers at a standardised rate and pay at the end of the month.

“I used to harvest and take my cashews to the factory, and at the end of the month I would get my pay. The factory bought a kilogram of the nuts at Sh15. I used to harvest a 90kg bag of cashew nuts every week and I could earn a minimum of Sh5,000 per month,” Mr Mwandoro recalls. Then the worst happened.

In 1990, when the processing factory was closed, a kilogram of cashew nuts fetched between Sh12 and Sh15, a tidy sum at the time, yet now, 32 years later, some processors are still buying cashew nuts for as low as Sh25 and Sh30 a kilo.

When the factory machines died 32 years ago, so did the hopes and fortunes of hundreds of farmers along the coastal belt who directly depended on it. The closure of the factory sounded the death knell for cashew nut farming in the region.

The farmers were frustrated. The government remained silent on their plight. Farmers had nowhere to sell their produce.

With hopes dwindling of ever having a large processing factory similar to the one owned by Kenya Cashew nut Limited, many farmers opted to cut down their cashew nut trees, abandoning the once-cherished cash crop.

Entry of middlemen

Like Mwandoro, Kenga  Charo, 60, has also witnessed the rise and fall of cashew nut farming. Charo now owns a bare land full of cashew nut tree stumps, the only reminder of his once booming farm.

“There are private companies and investors who have been buying the trees at Sh3,000 per lorry. I sold mine because I needed to survive,” says Mr Charo.

Mr Charo’s story reflects that of hundreds farmers in the area who have opted to cut down their cashew trees and sell them in order to stay afloat amidst the harsh economic times.

Mr Bernard Nzaro admires a section of Cashew Nuts fruits in its early stage at  his farm in Tezo,  Kilifi

The entry of middlemen seeking to exploit the void left by the processing plant made farming of cashew nuts untenable. They controlled prices to the detriment of farmers.

Production of cashew nuts plummeted. Farmers turned to other crops such as maize and cassava. Mr Mwandaro says middlemen have for years been exploiting farmers in the value chain, forcing many to ditch the trade.

“I wish cashew nuts had a standard market price like coffee and tea, middle-men would not be buying at their own set prices and selling them exorbitantly, making huge profits,” Mr Mwandoro says.

Mr Bernard Nzaro, a farmer in Tezo, says the current lack of interest in the crop is due to poor pricing. A 2021 report by the Nuts and Oil Crops Directorate indicates a total of 23,158 hectares of land in Kilifi, Kwale, Lamu, Tana River and Taita  Taveta counties is covered by cashew nuts, a slight increase from 22,690 hectares in 2020. The report released in April 2022 by the directorate, which is under the Agriculture and Food Authority, further indicates that 9,121 tonnes of cashew nuts valued at Sh457.32 million were produced in 2021, a slight decrease from 12,668  tonnes valued at Sh587.25 million in 2020 in the coastal counties.

“The increment of hectares was as a result of new planting in Lamu and Kwale, but production quantities declined as a result of the drought conditions prevailing in most parts of the Coast during the year under review,” reads the report.

The report also indicates that most of the harvested produce was consumed domestically after cottage level processing, while less than 20 per cent of the processed kernel was exported. Kitsao Mlandi, 70, and a former worker at the defunct Kenya Cashew nut Limited factory vividly recalls how the closure of the plant shattered the dreams of many workers. On the day the factory was closed, the Minister of Industrialisation accompanied with senior government officials visited the plant and were holed up in a meeting before a decision to shut it down was made.

“I remember very well, it was on February 16, 1990, at 1pm, when we were summoned and told the factory had been closed indefinitely,” says Mr Mlandi, a former machine attendant at the factory.

“At the factory, there were 2,000 permanent employees and 3,000 casuals,” says Mr Mlandi, adding that the processing plant operated 24 hours with three shifts daily.

The lack of a focused policy since the 1990s spelt doom for the sector.

“The sector’s disintegration started when the state-owned Kenya Cashew nut factory collapsed, a time when the political environment was not inclined to rescue a sector that had been a lifeline for thousands of Kenya’s coastal residents,” said Mr Kitsao.

No company in Kilifi has employed as many people as the cashew nut factory did.

Meanwhile, cashew nut farming continues on small scale.

“A small packet of roasted nuts goes at Sh50. Men are our frequent customers,” says Jumwa Charo who has been hawking nuts for the last five years.

“I always come here at 6am with 200 packets and I finish selling by noon,” says Ms Charo.

“I like cashew nuts. It has a lot of health benefits including boosting male libido. I always make sure I get a packet per day,’’ says Elias Omondi, a consumer.

The way forward

Mr Daniel Baha Nguma, an Independent consultant with the African forum for agricultural advisory service (AFAAS) and an agricultural consultant with Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations says the cashew nut industry faces a bleak future as a result of uncertainties ranging from poor quality crop and dwindling volumes.

“The closure of the state-owned processor had a direct effect on low production of cashew nuts. Many young people who were employed in the cashew nut sector in Kilifi and other coastal counties lost jobs,’’ says Nguma.

Mr Nguma says while growing up, agricultural extension officers from the processing factory visited farmers, advising them on how to grow the crop, which is not the case at the moment. Mr Nguma says cashew production in the Coast has been decreasing with time for the past decade due to drought conditions caused by climate change.  Ageing of the standing crops has also been cited as one of the issues bedeviling the sector.

“Ageing has caused a decrease in production. Instead of producing an average of 30 kilograms per tree per year, now most trees produce five kilos per year,” Mr Nguma says.

Diseases infecting cashew nuts such as anthracnose, powdery mildew, red rust and pestalotia leaf spot have also resulted in a huge setback for farmers as most of them lack enough capital to fight the diseases.

Mr Nguma, however, advises farmers to use alternatives such as barks and leaves of neem tree and chills to spread at the base and leaves of the trees. According to the agricultural experts, reviving the sector will take a maximum of five to seven years.

“To revive the cashew nut industry, the Ministry of Agriculture should start cashew nut enhancement productivity programme which should entail a minimum of two million  seedlings planted yearly, training of commercial tree nursery growers who will distribute seedlings to farmers at subsidised prices,’’ says Mr Nguma.

“Farmers need to be organised, aggregate the produce in one place and also adopt early maturity varieties from Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation. A group of farmers should also be trained and equipped with tools for spraying the trees in case of an outbreak of pests.”

Mr Nguma also says the government should establish cottage industries to stop exportation of the raw nuts.

“There should be a policy direction from the government to ban exportation of the raw nuts to create employment,” Mr Nguma says.

He however says at the moment there is not much produce to sustain a cashew factory.

“The cashew sector can only be revived after five-to-seven years through the cashew productivity enhancement programme with an average of two million seedlings planted yearly. So instead of investing to build a factory right now, authorities should empower the farmers first through cashew nut rehabilitation programmes. The programmes will need not less than Sh5 billion to implement,” Mr Nguma says.

Lake Kenyatta Cooperative Society in Mpeketoni in Lamu County remains the only cooperative society in the Coast formed by cashew nut farmers in the 1970s.

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