When China gave Kenyan avocados a nod in April, both small and large scale growers celebrated the development because Europe has traditionally been the country’s main avocado market.
With Kenya facing stiff competition from South Africa in terms of avocado exports to Europe, the Chinese market could not have come at a better time, local growers say.
Wellington Mutisya, who grows the Hass avocado variety in his two acre farm in the eastern county of Makueni, used to grapple with exploitative middlemen who denied him a chance to earn money from the highly nutritious fruit.
Mutisya said the highest amount he used to earn from one piece of Hass avocado was 10 Kenyan shillings (0.10 U.S dollars) despite it being touted as the best variety due to its longer shelf life and high fat content.
“I am just hoping both governments are looking into ways through which farmers like me who have never had a chance to reap what we deserve from our farms benefit from this deal,” Mutisya told Xinhua in a recent interview.
“I know for sure my avocados are consumed in Europe where I hear a single piece goes for 3 dollars yet the same is bought from me at 0.10 dollars. Nevertheless, I am optimistic about the Chinese market,” he added.
Mutisya’s woes are not isolated; the export industry is run by exploitative middlemen who go around farms collecting the fruits at poor prices and later sell them at inflated prices to established export companies.
But with the country opening up more export markets for avocados, Mutisya intends to do things differently.
“I know the export market is for the big fish but I plan to give it a shot. I have approached a few companies which have established structures on how they deal with farmers,” said Mutisya.
“In the meantime I will work with them but my goal is to establish my own. My son is also undergoing training on the export value chain as we gear ourselves towards tapping into this new market,” he added.
Mutisya intends to increase the number of avocado trees in his farm to 1,000 in the next one year.
Wilberforce Ngige, who has been exporting fresh produce to Europe for over a decade, expressed concern that small growers like Mutisya might never reap the benefits that come with the opening of such an expansive market if the government does not provide the necessary support.
“Most farmers don’t know the work that goes into collecting such fruits for the export market. Apart from selection, you need to have certification from various entities and maintaining these standards is not as easy, some of us who have been in this business have made big losses due to mistakes we could have avoided if we knew better. In 2016, I lost approximately 5,000 dollars after my produce was rejected in the United Kingdom,” said Ngige.
Chris Mutai, a small-scale grower in Kenya’s South Rift region, said since the announcement in April, he teamed up with colleagues and leased a 20-acre piece of land where they planted avocado trees after undertaking training on best practices in avocado farming.
They are also in the process of registering an export company in preparation for the Chinese market.
Already, they have obtained certified seedlings from the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS), which has been in the forefront educating farmers on which varieties do well in the export market and how to grow them.
Ernest Muthomi, chief executive officer at Avocado Society of Kenya, said the greatest challenge avocados farmers face is ignorance on which varieties do best in which markets and how to grow them.
“Most farmers follow the same script, they do what they see their neighbors do and the reality hits when the fruits mature and are ready for the market.
They lack proper knowledge on varieties, quality of seedlings and crop husbandry. The Chinese market is huge but it might never be of benefit to some farmers if proper training is not done,” said Muthomi.
Kenya propagates about 50 avocado varieties which include the local varieties like the jumbo and varieties such as Hass and the Fuerte.