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November 20, 2008

Kenyan Artemisia farmers disappointed by low earnings

Remove Formatting from selection by Watoro Kamau
Sections of smallholder farmers in Kenya's Nakuru District who three years ago abandoned the cultivation of traditional crops such as maize, beans and vegetables in favour of artemisia are now a disappointed lot.

A gradual reduction in producer prices, stringent conditions on artemisinin content, delayed payments, adverse weather conditions and high cost of inputs have all conspired to dim interest in the crop whose cultivation spread like bush fire in 2005.

The farmers recently held a meeting with managers of East African Botanicals Limited, which lured them to cultivate artemisia with handsome prices.

The country manager, Mr David Wainaina, said the company received 1,000 tonnes of dried artemisia leaf from local farmers annually. He said the firm had been paying about 800 farmers Sh40 million for crop deliveries every season.

The farm is working with 800 farmers in Bahati, Rongai, Njoro, Molo and Menegai area. Mr Wainaina said that the company had contracted farmers in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to grow the herb with the processing factory being based at Export Processing Zone in Athi River.

The low prices, however, have now seen acreage drop from 300 in 2005 to 47 currently. The number of farmers engaged in the cultivation of the herb in Nakuru District alone has dropped from a high of about 100 farmers to 40.

Mr Ezekiel Mbugua, a farmer in Karunga said that last year he harvested 820 kilogrammes of dried artemisia leaf from one acre of land for which he received Sh40,000.

“This year I planted half an acre which gave me 230 kilogrammes for which I was paid an estimated Sh35 per kilogramme. This translate to about Sh8,000, which is total loss on my part considering the high cost of production,” Mr Mbugua said.

The farmers complained that when the company introduced the growing of the plant in the area, it paid Sh70 per kilogramme but had since revised it downwards by half.

EAB finance director Stan Franco said the pricing policy was influenced by forces of demand and supply in the international market. He said requirements that produce should have 0.8 per cent of artemisinin content was in line with international standards.

Another farmer, Mr Joseph Mukuha accused the company of reneging on a pact to pay farmers within 60 days. The farmers are paid a certain amount of money a few days after they deliver their leaf with the balance being paid after the artemisinin content is analysed.

Some farmers have proposed that the firm pays a flat rate of Sh60 per kilogramme without factoring in the artemisinin content for which only the firm has the laboratory and technical knowledge to analyse.

The plant is a natural extract obtained after the processing of dried artemisia leaves and is used for the manufacture of modern anti-malaria drugs.

It has been in use in China and other Asian countries for close to 2,000 years. China and Vietnam are the leading producer of artemisinin in the world.

Major Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis and Chinese firms, Holley Group and Kunming Pharmaceutical, are among leading international firms that use artemisinin for the manufacture of anti-malaria drugs.

An official of Twanjenga Holding Company, Mr Martin Baumgaertuer, said that the price reduction had pushed farmers to poverty.

He said his firm had cultivated 75 acres of land in 2006 which produced 90 tonnes of dried leaf but the production plummeted to 45 tonnes from the same acreage last year.

“The company first offered us Sh75 per kilogramme then it slashed the amount to Sh50 the following year and finally to Sh35 per kilogramme last year," Baumgaertuer said.

A farmer requires a minimum of Sh30,000 to cultivate an acre of artemisia and makes losses at the current prices which translated to Sh25,000.

Business Daily Africa

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