A decade since UK ban, farmers still searching for miraa markets

Traders hawking miraa at Kongowea Market in Mombasa. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

The United Kingdom, in 2014, dealt miraa (khat) farmers a big blow after it banned the product from its market.

The UK was one of the two most lucrative markets for miraa, the other being Somalia.

Other countries that banned the crop are Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Miraa farmers, mostly from Meru, call it ‘green gold’. It is their main crop. Hence, the bans plunged the farmers into a socio-economic crisis.

The UK ban that declared miraa a Class C drug that should not be allowed in its markets, was a big shock to those who depend on miraa in Kenya and its value entire chain.

For ages, the UK had been miraa's biggest market, raking in billions of shillings. The then National Assembly’s Ad-hoc Committee on Miraa, through its chairperson Florence Kajuju, said there were about 600,000 people who depended on the crop for their sustenance.

The committee of Ms Kajuju, currently the chairperson of the Commission on Administrative Justice, produced a report that culminated in a Bill recognizing miraa as a legal, scheduled crop.

She also led an unsuccessful petition in the UK that sought to have the ban lifted.

The hope was that once the committee discounted the perception that miraa is a drug, its recognition as any other crop in Kenya would open more avenues, including government funding and more markets.

Dr James Mithika, a large-scale farmer, said failure to set up a miraa research institute propagate certified seeds and promote good husbandry to boost marketability of the crop was a big letdown.

Mithika said a research centre would have supported the crop’s marketability.

“In the Sh1 billion Miraa Fund by former President Uhuru Kenyatta, Sh30 million was set aside for the research institute. The thinking then and even now is that miraa, having been anchored in the Crops Act, there was need for a proper scientific study to identify its varieties, appropriate pesticides, fertilizers, and ideal farming methods,” he said.

He added: "This was meant to assure local and foreign consumers of the quality and wholesomeness of the product." 

“The institute would also have come up with proper packaging materials or methods that meet standards for consumables. The end would be wide market acceptability, improved quality and quantity, credible information on the crop to counter the stereotype narratives and effectively improve income to farmers,” Mithika said.

At least 50 acres of community land had been identified for the research activities.

Frustrated farmers and traders, in a petition to the National Assembly through Igembe South MP John Paul Mwirigi, asked legislators to intervene and ensure the recommendations of the Miraa Task Force Report Implementation Technical Team (MTFRITT), were implemented. These included setting up of the research institute and developing a Miraa Marketing Strategy as a blueprint for the development of miraa farming and expansion of local and international markets.

“We are still waiting for the interventions to secure us markets,” said Robert Kirinya, who has two acres under the crop.

Nyambene Miraa Farmers and Traders Association chairman Kimathi Munjuri said: "Djibouti and DRC are just some of the potential markets that remain unexploited."

Former Igembe North MP Maore Maoka urged the government to look for more markets in the Middle East.

Maore stressed the potential of the Middle East to offer a huge market for miraa saying; "Consumers of miraa in Israel get their supplies from elsewhere but it remains a major market for Kenyan miraa that remains unexploited."

Traders preparing miraa for sale at Kongowea Market in Mombasa County. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

“They miraa they consume mainly come from Ethiopia. The market is substantial. The challenge is flights. Ethiopian Airways does not transport Kenyan products,” Maoka said.

Ethiopia, also a major producer of miraa, and Kenya are in a cut-throat competition for the Somalia market.

During campaigns, President William Ruto and his deputy Rigathi Gachagua promised residents in the miraa growing regions that they would appoint an ambassador who would help them secure markets.

Noting the area is dependent on miraa farming, Gachagua said there would be an ambassador posted to Somalia, the biggest miraa market in the region.

"Ruto and I have agreed the ambassador to the miraa market will come from Nyambene. We will post someone who understands miraa so that they can get the markets for you," said Gachagua.

After winning the elections, the DP said: "Very soon we shall appoint ambassadors, we will try and look for someone from Tigania and Igembe to go to countries that trade in miraa, because they understand the crop and will look for markets”.

This promise was fulfilled following the appointment of former Igembe Central MP Kubai Kiringo as Kenya's ambassador to Somalia.

“While we thank the President for appointing someone from here, we feel it is a drop in the ocean. We need much more commitment than that. We need the research institute to support miraa development. Taxes should also be reduced to ensure we compete with Ethiopia's miraa to Somalia,” said Dennis Kirimi, a farmer and transporter.

About 90 per cent of Igembe farm miraa, with little diversification, and exporters of the crop have been counting losses for years.

Former assistant minister and MP for Nyambene Joseph Mutuuria said he used to make at least Sh500,000 per month from miraa before the devastating ban.

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