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Home / Smart Harvest

Future of beans has never bean brighter

24-year-old Jerios Wachira weeding her one-acre beans farm at home in Mangu, Nakuru County on May 12, 2020. [Kipsang Joseph/Standard]

You probably interact with beans often enough to react when it appears in a story headline. You probably also note that when there is a discussion on main cash crops in the country, beans are not usually among the first suggestions.

Yet, Kenya earns a fortune from the export of beans, as much as it benefits from having a population pumped with the proteins that beans boast. 

It, therefore, should be in the national discourse that beans production declined by 10.8 per cent to 8.3 million bags in 2019.

Kenya harvested 8.5 million bags of the legume in 2015, 8.1 million in 2016, and an impressive 9.4 million in 2017, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data show.

The figures declined to 9.3 million in 2018 and later to 8.3 million in 2019. That was a drop of a cool one million bags in the year. 

The year 2019 will be remembered as grim and unforgiving to the agricultural sector.

The year began with a semi-drought, the long rains usually experienced around April failing.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network blamed the failure of Kenya’s long rains on tropical cyclone Idai, which “redirected moisture away from the region”. 

The damage was so big that the World Bank also trimmed its forecast for Kenya’s economic growth to 5.7 per cent from 5.8 per cent following these conditions.

Impact of locusts

The government further said 1.1 million Kenyans, mainly in the arid counties of Turkana, Marsabit, Isiolo, Tana River and Garisssa, needed humanitarian food assistance as the country battled an acute food shortage.

And then, the rains came, in torrents that left a trail of destruction, barely compensating for an immensely punitive start of the year. What survived towards the end of the year was decimated by swarms of desert locusts that cleared every leaf on their way.

When the KNBS releases their next batch of data, a possible increase in production in 2020 will amplify the extent of decline experienced in 2019.

In 2017, when production of beans was at its peak, the price was also the highest recorded in the past half a decade, in the latest Economic Survey of 2020.

A kilo was going for Sh93.96 in March of the year, the peak price, against Sh77.01 in March 2019.  

Benjamin Tito, head of Horticultural Crops Directorate (HCD), which regulates the horticulture industry through licensing and application of rules, in a recent interview with The Standard, put French beans among crops that are, and will remain, lucrative for the Kenyan market.

He highlighted some of the issues affecting Kenyans in their quest to maximise production of some of these crops, including beans. “Farmers should focus on high value horticultural crops such as French beans, snow peas, carrots, onions. But farmers also need access to farming quality inputs, credit facilities and capacity building on good agricultural practices.”

Majority of Kenyans grow beans as a subsistence crop, often planting in rows alongside other “main” crops.

“Beans farming in Kenya is not as common as maize. However, it is one of the common grown crops in Kenya. In fact, it is often inter-cropped with the main crop for maximum absorption of nutrients by both plants,” writes Oxfarm, a website that is a farmers’ market place. But beans are often a part of every meal.

Grown as cash crop

“Beans popularity in Kenya may be due to the fact that bean recipes are numerous and beans are consumed almost with everything and contain quite a considerable amount of protein,” writes Oxfarm.

The market for beans is high locally and internationally.

Data from HCD showed that beans earned Kenya at least Sh300 million a month in 2020.

Like for every product, it is just the rare types of a beans that fetch the best prices. With demand exceeding supply, bean species that grow only in select places are always sure to fetch market.

“Depending on quality and type of beans, the prices per 90 kg bag of beans ranges between Sh7, 000 and Sh12, 000. Particularly, beans fetch better prices when it is not harvesting period.

The varieties

Some varieties are also more expensive than others. The rose coco and kidney beans, for instance, are a bit pricey compared to the other varieties which are available in large quantities. Beans with a high supply across the country will fetch a lower price compared to those that thrive in specific areas.”

Prices aside, the market for beans, often part of githeri, an easy-to-prepare staple food in parts of the country, is always available, Oxfarm says.

“Irrespective of the type of beans, the market is always there and since it’s a grain, you can store it and sell when the prices are high.”

Farmers in some locations have resorted to growing beans as a cash crop, backed by suitable ecological factors, including favourable temperatures and rainfall. “Beans thrive in temperatures of about 20 to 25 degrees, altitude of between 1,000m to 2,100m above sea level, rainfall of between 900mm to 1,200mm per year and a soil pH of 6.5 to 7.5.”

Last year, a group of farmers in Kieni, Nyeri, started growing yellow beans for commercial purposes, after being drained economically in seasons that saw their other cash crops fail due to lack of adequate water.

“Before I got into commercial yellow bean farming, my focus was potatoes, french beans, snowpeas, capsicum, which I often sold off to brokers to make money,” said Robert Kahoro, a farmer in Kieni.

Bean farming was only for local consumption and he had not discovered that he could do it as a business. But now he is reaping big. “One acre of yellow beans can earn me up to Sh90,000, and that with a low cost of production unlike other horticultural products, and they can be stored in hermetic bags for as long as I need to ensure I get the best deal for my produce,” he said, adding that he had joined hands with twenty other farmers to supply beans in large scale to some of Kenya’s biggest retailers.

Like Mr Kahoro, farmers planting beans are unlikely to meet a dearth of markets.

“There is high potential because demand for horticultural produce for local and export market is increasing with rising world population,” said Mr Tito.

To change from subsistence to commercial farming is probably the masterstroke.

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