Francis Serem and Beatrice Toroitich are small scale farmers in Uasin Gishu County who for many years have been farming maize.
The farmers have been producing subsistence and commercial maize with the Government through the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) offering ready market every year.
Until a few years ago small scale farmers from the grain basket regions enjoyed ready markets for their produce as the Government factored funds in the budget to buy maize through the NCPB every year.
This is despite the farmers grappling with the high cost of production and fluctuating prices leading to low returns, poor harvests and huge post-harvest losses.
North Rift has now emerged as the new frontier in terms of high-value crops mainly avocado farming joining the league of leading producers in the country such as counties of Murang’a, Kiambu, Nakuru, Nyamira, Kisii, Meru and Bomet.
Maize as a commodity despite being a political crop has equally been hijacked by unscrupulous traders and cartels denying the small scale farmers an opportunity to enjoy their hard-earned sweat.
And now with the grain basket region shifting to high-value crops and mainly horticulture, the country’s food security is at risk, a situation likely to increase the annual food import bill.
Kenya is the leading exporter of avocado in Africa and among the top ten world's largest exporters although out of the total production of 84.5 million kilograms produced only 10 per cent was exported.
About five years ago, the Government stopped buying maize directly from the small scale farmers and instead transformed NCPB into a commercial entity where it is now competing with other players in the market.
Even though the Government action did not augur well to the majority of farmers in the region, to Serem and Toroitich the move was a blessing in disguise.
“As we could not have thought of venturing into avocado farming which is paying well by far compared to maize. Every year we are smiling all the way to the banks and thus able to meet our financial obligations,” Serem noted.
County Governments in the region a few years ago initiated crop diversification programmes with a view to supplementing farmers' dwindling incomes.
Uasin Gishu county executive in charge of agriculture and livestock Samuel Yego confirms that maize farming, even though still viable, has in the recent past experienced a lot of changes like declining prices and high cost of production among others.
Thus, Yego says prompted the County to advise farmers to diversify to other crops so that they can remain financially strong and equally be able to endure other challenges like the vagaries of climate change.
“We are encouraging farmers to plant high-value crops to maximize and earn more from their land. Some of these high-value crops can earn you twice a year. We are promoting the growth of avocado, coffee, macadamia, tissue culture bananas and also export vegetables,” Yego noted.
He said avocado is becoming food of choice for many people in the world and, “Kenya being at the equator where we enjoy almost 12 hours of sunshine, we will be able to harvest avocados when the rest of the world is not able to,” he added.
According to the growers, commercial avocado farming, though a relatively new venture, is more profitable due to the ready market and low cost of production.
The emergence of Agri-business community groups
Serem ventured into avocado farming in 2018 and since then has planted 180 trees where 100 of them are mature and he is already harvesting.
He has so far earned Ksh150, 000 from the avocados he has harvested this year, which he said is four times more than what he could earn from maize in one acre per year in the past.
“I have been a maize and wheat farmer for many years but I have since reduced my acreage under maize to get into avocado farming. I believe this will earn me more money than maize as there is a ready market and the cost of production is minimal,” he said.
Serem is a member of the Kapsosio Avocado Agri Community Group (KAACG) which has 78 farmers who have been contracted by Habex Agro Limited Company for 10 years to grow avocados for the export market in the European Union, mainly Spain and Germany.
“Habex Company provided us with avocados seedlings and I opted to change because I was tired of maize farming. We harvested for the first time after two years and since every twice a year we harvest and the return on investment is high by far compared to maize farming. This is supported by a ready market and minimal cost of production,” Serem remarked adding that a farmer can still earn from the trees in terms of charcoal.
Toroitich, also a member of KAACG, said started growing avocados three years ago and so far she has planted 80 trees per acre.
Last year during her first harvest, Toroitich recorded ten kilos from each tree translating to Ksh80,000 when a kilo has been bought at Ksh100. Since then production has increased to 40kgs per bush pushing earnings to over Ksh300,000 for a season.
“With avocados, you are likely to harvest three times in a year. If I was farming maize, I would have earned between Ksh25, 000 to Ksh30, 000 in a year and if it’s deducted the cost of production, I will be left with minimal earnings not adequate to service my financial obligations,” Toroitich noted.
Kevin Koimat, a youth, recalls the resistance he encountered from his parents when he proposed to start avocado farming.
Koimat,27, says four years down the line avocado farming has transformed his life and he cannot regret not seeking formal employment after graduating with a diploma in petroleum engineering from the Rift Valley Technical Training Institute in Eldoret.
“I started growing avocado in 2018 but it took some time to convince my mother to give me a portion of land to plant avocado instead of maize. She still believed in growing maize despite the poor prices and low production over the years,” he recalled.
Koimat has planted 60 trees in a three-quarter land which earned him about Ksh20, 000 in the first harvest, Ksh30, 000 in the second harvest and Ksh50, 000 in the third harvest translating to Ksh100,000 annually.
“Had I planted maize, I would have harvested at most 12 bags of maize, earning Ksh30, 000 in a year, with a 90 kg bag selling at Ksh2,500," he added.
Increased area under avocado
According to the Horticulture Crops Directorate (HCD) director Benjamin Tito, Uasin Gishu and Transnzoia are some of the counties in the North Rift that have in the last one year doubled their area under avocado production.
“And so are counties to watch in avocado production in the next two years when the crops are bearing. Avocado production in the country increased to 84.5 million kilogrammes between Jan-Nov 2021 compared to 70 million kilos in the same period in 2020,” Tito noted.
Yego, Uasin Gishu County Agriculture CEC insisted his region is still one of the food basket Counties in the country with maize being the main focus crop.
“We are still growing more than 100,000 hectares of maize although the production area progressively will decrease as farmers shift to high-value crops. But the area under wheat production has been decreasing and currently stands at 16,500 hectares with the reduction blamed on the increased cost of production especially on chemicals. There is also a lot of competition in the market especially with wheat from Ukraine, besides the effect of climate change,” he said.
The CEC pointed out that the County has so far supported farmers with close to 150,000 avocado seedlings translating to close to 700 hectares.