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How local firm cracked key avocado export markets

 John Ndegwa, farmer and chairman of Bungoma Avocado Farmers Association, on his farm in Bilibili, Bungoma County. [Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]

It is the dream of any entrepreneur involved in horticultural export to provide quality produce that leaves customers yearning for more.

It is a game Damaris Omuka, the farm manager at KTL Farming Ltd, has mastered over the years.

The company based in Trans Nzoia exports avocados to various global markets.

"We have our director who looks for markets in Europe and the Middle East, while some of us here on the ground look for volumes from local farmers," says Ms Omuka.

Following numerous cases of local produce being locked out of international markets for not meeting required standards, she is keen to ensure the company gets everything right, from seedlings to harvesting.

That is why the company is involved in the entire avocado value chain, beginning with the production of quality seedlings and distributing them to contracted farmers.

"This is our baby, and we need to take care of it very well because it determines the end product after three years," explains Ms Omuka.

The European Commission on June 22 last year adopted proposals to restore damaged ecosystems and reduce the use of chemical pesticides by 50 per cent by 2030.

The plan, referred to as Bringing Nature Back Across Europe involves ecosystems from agricultural land and seas to forests and urban environments.

The laws have new rules on chemical pesticides, which are expected to reduce the environmental footprint of the European Union's food system and protect the health and well-being of citizens and agricultural workers.

The commission says it does not want the outright ban on the use of chemical pesticides, although the proposed 50 per cent target would be legally binding for member states.

Kenya, which exports a large part of its products to the EU, will have to comply with the regulations on pesticides.

Established in 2018, KTL Farming has been shipping six containers every season without any hitches.

Apart from distributing quality seedlings, the firm also trains farmers on proper agronomical practises, safe handling of agrochemicals, harvesting and storage.

any compromise along the avocado value chain courts trouble for exporters. It is for this reason that the company has invested in a strong traceability system.

They sell seedlings to farmers in Tans Nzoia and Bungoma at Sh200 each. Seedlings are made from root stalks, usually the Kienyeji (indigenous) variety.

The seeds are first washed and disinfected before planting. After three months, the root stalks are ready and grafted together with scions sourced from a certified farm.

After about a month, buds start to open and are given another three months to harden before they are taken out of the nursery. The seedling process takes six months.

"Initially, there are farmers who wanted to buy at a cheaper price, but once we take them through the process to come up with quality seedlings, they understand and take," says Ms Omuka.

 Harvested avocados at KTL Farming Ltd in Kitale, Trans Nzoia County. [Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]

She explains before farmers pick the seedlings they are assisted on how to plant and the proper site location for the orchard farm. She points out that you cannot plant avocados on a dumpsite and expect them to do well.

"During transplanting, we provide an extension person to do the demonstrations before a farmer takes over the process," says Ms Omuka.

Farmers are also trained on spraying programmes and schedules, which help to contain pests and diseases.

Knowledge of not only the safe and effective use of pesticides but also the approved ones is a must for farmers. Some of the banned pesticides can lead to environmental pollution besides having the produce rejected entry into key export markets.

Some of the pests that affect avocados include fruit flies, thrips, false codling moths and scales, while the most prevalent diseases are root rot, anthracnose, Cercospora fruit spot and scab.

The company also trains farmers on irrigation systems.

"Some of our farmers have big orchards, and when the dry season kicks in, they need to have irrigation systems," explains Ms Omuka.

They also guide farmers in harvesting because poor harvesting methods with the wrong equipment result in the damage of fruits. This can be a major loss to farmers.

Once farmers buy seedlings, they register them for traceability. Having a ready market, she says, has been the key motivator for contracted farmers.

"The first thing our new farmers ask when they come to buy seedlings is where will they sell their fruits. We guarantee to walk with them through the entire value chain, including buying their mature fruits. This has given them the joy and contentment that after harvesting they don't have to struggle to look for markets," says Ms Omuka, adding that avocados are currently in high demand.

The Agricultural Outlook 2021-2030 published jointly by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), forecasts that avocados are poised to become the most traded fruit by 2030.

And Kenya is positioning itself to be part of that growth, aiming to increase the area under avocados from the current 26,000 hectares to more than 50,000 hectares by 2030.

Currently, Kenya tops the African countries with a production of 417,000 metric tonnes annually followed by Ethiopia at 152,000 metric tonnes as of the end of 2021.

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