By RENSON MNYAMWEZI
To protect her farm from rampaging thieves, Julita Ndoro has taken to branding her bananas as a form of identification.
Call it a “banana tracking device” if you like, but it’s working quite well in deterring those who want reap where they have never sown.
At her Kisembia Farm near the Njoro springs in Taita-Taveta County, Ms Ndoro has etched her name clearly on the bananas.
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Ndoro, who depends entirely on banana farming to fend for her family, is among hundreds of banana farmers who have been suffering from persistent food shortages as a result of rampant theft of the crop by gangs who invade farms mostly at night. “We have been forced to write our names on the bananas to prevent thieves from stealing our crop. The thieves fear stealing marked bananas as it serves as a warning that they will be found out. This is one of the desperate measures we have resorted to in order to deal with the crooks, “says Ndoro, 56.
Other farmers are painting their banana stacks in different colours to help them identify stolen crops at the local market.
Also branded for protection purposes are other fruits like mangoes and oranges.
A visit to the Taveta open air market reveals bananas painted red, blue, yellow, white and green for easy identification.
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“Every farmer knows his or her colours and can easily identify stolen farm produce,” she says, adding that her trademark is “Ndoro”.
Taveta district is regarded as the bread basket of the Coast region but farmers’ efforts are being frustrated by uncontrolled stealing of farm produce, poor state of roads and exploitation by middlemen.
Residents and leaders say the bulk of banana produce sold at the Kongowea wholesale market in Mombasa comes from Taveta.
The mother of six says the thieves invade the farms under the cover of darkness but some daring ones steal during the day.
Farmers interviewed say theft of crops is not only affecting food production and leading to hunger in the region, but also frustrating wealth and employment creation, and poverty reduction.
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“We rely entirely on banana farming to educate and feed our children so any form of interference with our agri-business is a major blow to us,” says another farmer.
The farmers blame boda boda operators for the escalation in banana theft. They accuse unscrupulous operators of colluding with some Tanzanians to perpetrate the vice. They have asked the Government to intervene and curb banana theft.
Mathew Saningo, a former civic leader and farmer, says majority of the farmers have threatened to abandon banana farming because of uncontrolled theft.
“We have been investing heavily in farming but we end up getting nothing from our farms due to stealing of farm produce,” he says.
Speaking to The Standard from Taveta town, Mr Saningo said some desperate farmers are contemplating hiring traditional medicine men from Western and the neighbouring Tanzania to deal with the menace.
“We are tired of this behaviour and are now looking for a lasting solution to the problem,” he says. “The locals are bitter and if the thieves are not careful they will soon start eating grass like it has been reported in some parts of Western (region).”
Cases of produce theft are also common in other parts of the county.
Farmers have to deal with the dual task of trying to guard their crops not only against thieves but also herds of marauding elephants that invade farms.
In some instances, unlucky thieves have been sent to early graves after farmers, in sheer frustration, shoot them with arrows.
The problem comes at a time when the region is still grappling with persistent food scarcity, especially with unpredictable climate conditions.
“We cannot continue suffering at the hands of thieves. The Government has to find a lasting solution to the problem that has aggravated hunger and poverty,” noted Saningo.
Governor John Mruttu and the County Director of Agriculture Doris Kiia said banana theft has been going on for some time.
Mruttu said if nothing was done to deal with the situation, banana farming would collapse in the area.
“Farmers are getting increasingly frustrated and I’m afraid they might give up if rampant food theft is not adequately addressed,” said the governor, who is also a prominent farmer in the region.
He noted that a police post in Mboghoni had not been functional.
“We must know why the police post in this agricultural area is not working. The region has been producing large, high quality bananas whose markets are Mombasa and Nairobi,” said Mruttu.
Ms Kiia noted that crop theft is affecting the promotion of banana tissue culture in the area, adding that the high unemployment rate among the youth is to blame for the vice.
“There is a big potential for banana varieties like Grandnine and Williams,” she protests.
Area OCPD Eshiphan Gichohi said farmers have not been reporting theft of farm produce to the police for action.
“We have not received complaints from farmers. Let those affected come and record statements to enable police to take action,” he says. “We cannot succeed in the war against crime without support from the public.”