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Nyeri onion farmers protest skewed market

 An exhibitor inspects red onions during Farmers Field Day at Wambugu Farm, Nyeri, on July 28, 2018. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

After seventeen years of farming and selling - or trying to sell - onions, Joshua Mwangi has given up on the venture and swiftly moved on to other crops.

Many of his neighbours haven't, mainly because they have nothing else to move on to.

Here in Kieni West, Nyeri County, nearly every farmer grows onions. In most of the sub-county, which together with Kieni East forms Kieni Constituency, onion is the cash crop. Yet fortunes have been dwindling for the farmers by the day.

"The past few years have been very difficult for us. We do not have sufficient water supply to help us grow other crops, and yet onions keep leading us into losses," Mr Mwangi laments.

Douglas Kirichu, a prolific onion farmer in Gitegi village, Kieni West, this season has planted three acres of the crop.

He desperately holds onto hope that 2023 will be better than the previous year.

After starting the year at Sh50 a kilo at the farm gate, the prices have plummeted to around Sh20. This, by any standards, is a horrible price and a low that is leaving farmers, especially large-scale ones, counting massive losses.

One of the problems, he says, is the infiltration of onion imports into the local market even as supply within Kenya outstrips demand.

"That there are plenty of onions from Tanzania flooding the Kenyan market meaning that we are not able to compete and to sell," says Kirichu.

"In Tanzania, the cost of production is way lower and they therefore can price their onions cheaply."

Tanzanians, he says, grow medium-sized onions. These find the market easily.

"But here, we mostly grow onions that are bigger than average. To find a market for this is often a difficult feat," added Kirichu.

Whenever there is a surplus of the crop, brokers are extremely selective. Often, a lot of the crop goes to waste.

It does not help that the farmers lack proper storage facilities.

Once they are unable to access markets on time, it is almost certain they will incur post-harvest losses. The alternative is to dispose of it at a throwaway price.

The sprawl that supports onion growth in Kieni - a semi-arid area - is often characterised by dry vegetation as rains are irregular and unreliable.

With those rains having coincided with planting, and the harvesting season within sight, farmers are now not complaining about water supply, which they often do.

But that does not mean all, or nearly all, complaints are gone.

"The costs of inputs are very, very high and they rise by the day. A 500g container of Russet seed (an onion variety) used to cost us Sh7,000 about two years ago. Now it is at Sh19,000. You would need two to three containers for an acre," said Kirichu.

The onion seed for an acre would thus cost nearly Sh57,000.

Add labour costs to this- from watering the nursery, replanting them and weeding in a process that takes at least six months.

Within this period, farmers are actively spraying pesticides, and also need fertilisers.

They also need to water the onions when rains fail, with Kieni being a semi-arid area.

On a visit to Nairobi's Wakulima Market last year, this writer discovered that the price of a kilo of onions was Sh120.

The brokers in the market bought the crop at the farm at Sh60 or less, making a killing.

The main markets for Kieni onions include Nairobi's Wakulima Market, Kisumu, South Sudan and Uganda.

The farmers appealed to the government to oversee the subsidisation of most of the basic farming inputs, including pesticides and herbicides.

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