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March 31, 2010

Kenya: Eyes on avocado as coffee cash crop fortunes tumble

by Otsieno Namwaya

In the highly rated agricultural region of Central Kenya, coffee and tea have for long been the main cash crops and high income earners. But the upheavals that have afflicted these crops, and thus the bottom line for most farmers, have led many to begin looking for alternative income sources.

Avocados, like other fruits such as oranges and lemons, have for years been grown by small-scale farmers, in Central Kenya and other parts of the country, but not at the current rate. A survey by this writer showed that should the increased growing of the fruit be sustained in the long term, avocado could just be the crop to watch. An avocado processing industry is not only attracting new investors, but more farmers around the country are beginning to spare space for the crop.

Ms Esther Wangari, the general manager of Olivado Kenya (EPZ) Ltd, an avocado processing company from New Zealand that four years ago established its East African base in Nairobi, says avocado is beginning to take root as a cash crop in Central Province, and it is this market that the firm is keen on developing.

“The market prices for avocado have been going up for the last five years, but the early 1990s were the best — the yield was better and the price per kilogramme was good,” says Mr James Muturi, a farmer from Kawendo in Kandara District.

But avocado is a long term investment, as most farmers reaping from the crop planted it in the early 1970s and 1980s. Despite its most recent promise, avocado farming in Central Kenya has gone through ups and downs over the years, with rogue agents taking advantage of desperate farmers, collecting the produce, selling it and disappearing without paying.

Others harvested the crop with the promise of taking it to the processors, only to abandon it in the farms to rot. Mr John Mbogo of Kavingasi Village in Embu District says other processors would offer painfully low prices for the fruits. Having been in avocado farming since 1968, Mr Mbogo has seen it all.

“At that time there were organised groups and companies that would buy avocados from farmers. These groups would then sell the fruits either directly in the local market or export them,” he said. Even though the authorities are yet to take any direct measures to promote the crop in the country, many farmers in Central Kenya are optimistic that, if handled well, avocado could well fill the void left by the dwindling fortunes of coffee.

Those interviewed have either uprooted their coffee trees or are planning to replace them with avocado. Most farmers in the area have small pieces of land — mostly between two acres and 10 acres — and are happy with avocado because, if well spaced, it allows them to grow other food crops in between.

Mrs Alice Maina from Kandara also grows maize and beans, just like Mr Muturi, who also keeps livestock. The entry of Olivado, which they say pays them better for their produce, has sparked interest from farmers, and many are now looking to avocado as the future cash crop.

The optimism might not be in vain, as agricultural experts share the view that the crop has great promise. “Avocado is the crop for the future and could replace coffee in Central Kenya, although this could take some time,” says Mr Kori Njuguna, a fruit research co-ordinator at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari).

Avocado farming was, in fact, introduced in Central Province by Kari several decades back and the officers are happy that it is finally gaining ground. “There are two varieties of avocado grown in Kenya — Fuerte and Hass. The Hass variety has recently gained importance due to its high returns. We are currently testing to see which of the varieties has higher resistance to common diseases in the area,” Mr Njuguna says.

While Olivado’s worry would have been the sustainability of supply of the fruit for its processing needs given that most farmers are small scale, the good news for it is that one of Kenya’s big players in agriculture, Kakuzi, has set aside 1,000 acres to grow avocado.

Kakuzi might however prefer exporting the crop or even establishing its own processing plant, thus competing with Olivado for farmers’ produce. Mr Njuguna says that the plan is to expand avocado farming to other areas. “It is already taking root in Western Kenya.”

Daily Nation

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