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November 20, 2008

Low food crop prices drive some Kenyan farmers to marijuana cultivation

by Najum Mushtaq

Kenyan small-scale farmers have moved across the border into Tanzania to cultivate marijuana or ‘‘bhang’’, as the Cannabis sativa plant is locally called. One of them is 25-year-old Steve Odhiambo. He believes that the international and local campaign against bhang harms only the small growers while the true profiteers get away.

For the past 10 years, Kenya’s anti-narcotics unit has conducted a concerted campaign to eradicate cultivation and trade of bhang. Hundreds of hectares of plantations in the Mount Kenya regions of Embu and Meru are bulldozed or put on fire each year. Plans to kill the illegal crop, hidden in clearings amidst remote forests, with aerial sprays had to be put off because of opposition from environmentalists.

Of the 17,578 people arrested from 2005 to 2007 on drug-related charges, more than 500 were the growers of cannabis. As a result, according to recent police estimates, Kenya’s output of marijuana has come down to 80 tons per year with a street value of 15 dollars per kg. Yet, the country remains the biggest consumer of bhang in east Africa.

‘‘The demand in the consumption market has not come down despite the curbs on production,’’ says an official of the anti-narcotics unit, who estimates that the supply is almost double the local produce because ‘‘wholesale and retail bhang dealers find other sources of acquiring the contraband. It’s a constant battle we have to fight.’’

A major front in this battle is the 769 km border with Tanzania. Most of the marijuana consumed in Kenya is grown in Tanzania and brought into the country across the largely unmarked border. It is impossible to police due to the cultural and linguistic affinity of people living on both sides, and the constant free movement of cattle and people.

Tanzanian farmers are not the only producers in the market. The police crackdown on Kenyan bhang farmers has forced many to rent land in the thick hilly forests across the border, mainly in the Arusha district.

It was 10 years ago when orphaned Steve Odhiambo left his hometown Migori in the Nyanza province to rent a half-hectare piece of land across the border in Roria to grow bhang.

‘‘I was just 15 years old and the first year of farming proved to be disastrous. The rain was good and the harvest was healthy but I had no experience of marketing the crop. I spent more money bribing people on both sides than I earned,’’ Odhiambo said.

Asked why he decided to take up farming of an illegal substance as his source of livelihood, Odhiambi said growing maize, sugarcane or other food crops on small farms brings no money. There is a lot of ‘‘free land’’ on the Tanzanian side available for farming for as low as 25 to 30 dollars per acre for a season.

‘‘Bhang is used as a rotational crop, ready for harvesting in four to five months. Usually, I also grow it as a second crop within a maize or sugarcane field, which helps to keep it hidden,’’ Odhiambo said.

In a good year, harvest from his small farm can fetch up to 15,000 shillings (200 dollars). The biggest cost of production is the pair of pickers Odhiambo has to hire to reap the harvest. They charge about 10 dollars for their work. Other family members also give a helping hand.

Odhiambo tells that most of the Kenyans farming in Tanzania rent small, half to one hectare plots usually hidden in thick forests on the hilly slopes. Both men and women of the family take part in the enterprise.

But he does not smuggle the compact bushels, or haystacks called stones, back into Kenya. That is done by traffickers whom he refused to identify, except as ‘‘people in big cars or small trucks coming from Mombasa, Nairobi or other big cities to buy the harvest’’.

They are also the main profiteers, whereas small farmers like Odhiambo keeps struggling for survival in poverty. Two-hundred dollars, the net income of Odhiambo, is less than the market price of just one large bushel he sells to the interlocutors.

Despite the temptation of increasing his meagre profit, Odhiambo is not willing to take the risk of directly accessing the underground market, mainly in Kenya’s tourism hotspots.

Like most other aspects of the Kenyan economy, trade in illegal drugs too is largely dependent on tourism. Last year was one of Odhiambo’s best whereas violent troubles in 2008 have cut the demand and his profit down to about 140 dollars.

A third component in the economy of illegal drugs consists of small-time retailers in urban areas who complete the chain by selling the product to end-users. Like the small farmers, the margin of profit here too is much smaller than what the interlocutors are likely to make.

Odhiambo’s cousin, David Otieno, is a ‘‘beach boy’’ in Mombasa, selling thin rolls for 20 to 30 shillings (30 to 40 cents) a piece. He buys a small stone for eight dollars which, after the value addition of being rolled in cigarette papers, will fetch him 16 dollars.

On the other hand, in March this year reports by the U.S. state department’s bureau of international narcotics and law enforcement affairs and International Narcotics Control agency raised queries about Kenya’s ability and commitment to the fight against drug-trafficking.

These American agencies said drug barons have been covering their illegal activities in Kenya by paying off law enforcement and other government officials as well as politicians. They estimated that drug lords could be laundering about seven billion shillings or 100 million dollars annually through Kenya.

‘‘The common perception that growing marijuana means some kind of wealth is false,’’ says Odhiambo, ‘‘People believe that because it is illegal, it brings large profits to growers. The fact is that the drive against bhang mainly targets only the growers -- most of who are forced to resort to growing bhang because of poverty.’’

He advocates legalisation. ‘‘My experience says that if it is legalised, farmers like me would be able to access the market directly and thus make more profit.’’

As long as it is illegal, Odhiambo explains, the big landowners, who can protect their crops with armed guards, and the drug barons, who can manipulate the system, will remain the major beneficiaries of this trade.


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