John Wachuma, a farmer in Laikipia County, has had enough of the ping-pong with the prices of onions.
The farm gate price for a kilo of the vegetable is currently set at Sh20.
“There is a time they (brokers) were buying at as high as Sh80 per kilo. And then it suddenly dropped,” says Wachuma.
Such price fluctuations have pushed him to ending his four-year affair with onion farming, a profitable vegetable grown for both local and export markets.
Beginning next month, Wachuma will sub-divide his four acre-farm and put it into other uses, including breeding cows and pigs.
Not long ago, he could sell a unit of onions at Sh70. But the price plummeted suddenly to Sh20, voraciously eating into his margins.
Expenses such as seeds, pesticides, irrigation had already taken a good chunk of his money. He was hoping that a price of Sh70 will help him recover his investment. Instead, the price fell.
That fluctuation in the price of onions has pushed him away from the crop. He will start breeding cows and pigs. “The price of meat does not fluctuate,” he told Smart Harvest.
It is not only Wachuma, who is frustrated with the erratic prices of onions, millions of other farmers are also grappling with this problem.
Most of them, like Wachuma, think part of the problem lies with competition from the produce from Tanzania.
Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan are in the same regional economic community known as the East African Community (EAC).
The first thing EAC member states agreed upon was creation of a Customs Union. This is like a free trade area, where any good or service from any of the member states does not attract taxation.
There has been unfettered inflow of onions from Tanzania, mostly to Nairobi. Increased supply of onions has translated into a drop in prices, impacting negatively farmers like Wachuma.
His sentiments echo those of many experts who noted that while there is a market for onions, local farmers have been edged out of it.
“There is never a day you will not sell. That is the only good thing with onions. But the price is horrible,” says Wachuma.
Onions is the third most consumed vegetable after tomatoes and brassicas, and local farmers have barely met this demand.
Timothy Njagi, a research fellow at Tegemeo Institute, agrees that competition from onions from Tanzania has been intense. However, he advises for a two-pronged approached to onion farming.
Other countries from where Kenya imports onions include Egypt and India.
He says in addition to producing efficiently, timing is important for onion farmers. As much as onion, particularly bulb onion, is a profitable crop, it also requires a lot of labour during transplanting and weeding, according to a report by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Per capita consumption has since dropped to 700 grams.
Consumption per person
Official data shows that 43,000 tonnes of onions were produced last year.
This pales in comparison to production 10 years ago. In 2009, Kenya produced 63,000 tonnes of onions - and did not have any imports.
Per person consumption of the vegetable stood at 1.6 kilos, according to data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS). But this has since dropped to 700 grams, a figure contradicted by other reports.
Perhaps due to the pressure from imports, Kenyan farmers have been producing fewer and fewer onions.
And despite what many might see as an upsurge of people who don’t like their goat meat without kachumbari, consumption of onions has been declining.
Local onion growers would have wished that Kenyans consumed as much of the vegetable as Libya which is ranked as the top onion-eater with per capita consumption of 6.2 kilos.
But such a feat with the current trend where Kenyans take onions mostly as a spice rather than food, is almost unattainable.
Although there are favourable conditions for the growth of onions (they are mostly grown in Kirinyaga and Loitoktok), the yields, at 14.3 tonnes per acre, are low forcing the country to import almost half of its needs. It is even less for Wachuma who says in an acre, he can only harvest around seven tonnes.
This is too low compared to other countries such as South Korea, 65.3 tonnes per acre, US (56.4) and Australia (56.2).
“The low yield is attributed to use of low yielding varieties, pests and diseases and poor agronomic practices among them improper use of fertilisers,” according to a 2018 study that appeared in the International Journal of Plant & Soil Science.
The authors noted that growers fertilise the crop at the late stages of bulb growth perhaps to compensate for losses incurred through leaching or merely from anxiety that the yields will be less than needed to maintain profitability.
Post harvest losses
They also estimated that post-harvest losses of the vegetable at between 40 and 60 per cent.
To be competitive, it is thus important that farmers shop around for high-yielding varieties. Most common varieties of onions grown in Kenya are Bombay Red and Red Creole.
For example, Wachuma says the variety of onion that comes from Tanzania is the small size that most people like. “There is no cutting it into two,” says Wachuma.
Consumers are afraid that if they cut the onion and leave it to be consumed later, it can be poisonous.
These varieties should not be vulnerable to pests and diseases. Moreover, experts call for zero-rating of pesticides to help bring down the cost of production and make Kenyan farmers competitive.
A farmer that we spoke to Smart Harvest and Technology says he found a pesticide from Tanzania, not licensed in Kenya, and was surprised how cheap and effective it was.
On post-harvest losses, the journal article called for good field curing. Curing is the process of drying off the neck and outer leaves of bulbs to prolong the shelf life by preventing moisture loss and attack by disease.
Curing as remedy
Curing can be done either in the field or in a protected environment, away from the adverse weather conditions.
But timing is also very critical, and might mean the difference between making a loss or profit for onion growers. “This year, farmers burnt their fingers because of the onions coming from Tanzania,” says Njagi, an agricultural economist.
He estimates that before the onions from Tanzania poured into Kenya, a kilo of onions was retailing at around Sh150 in February and March. But this has since dropped drastically to Sh50.
But it is not only that the supply of onions from Tanzania surged, local production also increased with farmers attracted by the high prices that prevailed before. This has the effect of increasing the supply onions, and hence the drop in prices.
He notes that for fresh produce, including tomatoes, Kenya gets significant supply from Tanzania. “If you are a local farmer, you have to think of that context.”
He also advises farmers to pay attention to what is happening in other markets, ensuring that they can cast their nets as wide as possible. Nairobi, for most farmers, seems to be the preferred market. But it is also where all onions from Tanzania land.
Njagi, who for the last three years has been studying fresh produce farmers in Makueni and Machakos counties, found that these farmers start monitoring the prices in different parts of the country before they even start planting.
“They have brokers in every market to help them monitor the prices,” said Njagi.
So if, for example, they find that the price for onions in Nairobi is not attractive they will send all their harvests to Mombasa where the price is good.
“These products, you can’t just produce and then go to look for market. You have to be knowing where you will sell,” says Njagi.
The way onions are consumed in Kenya is also inhabiting its demand. Onions are mostly consumed as a spice rather than food.
New eating habits
Interestingly, Kenya exports about 60 tonnes a year of salad onions to the European Union market as vegetable mixes in pre-pack, according to the 2018 journal.
If there is an increase in supply of onions, families will not suddenly increase the number of onions they put as seasoning in food- though consumers can increase their portions of kachumbari.
Consumption patterns also have to change. With a change in consumption, perhaps farmers can plant and preserve.
It can be through making of pickled onions, which can go a long way in transforming the market.
“Those are small things that can change a lot,” says Njagi.
For example, in the case of during shortage of tomatoes, canned are cheaper than fresh ones.