A few years ago, Grace Ngungi took a leap of faith and began cutting down coffee plants on her 400-hectare farm in Juja, Kiambu County, to replace half the farm with avocado trees.
She went ahead and invested a substantial portion of her savings in purchasing nearly 4,000 avocado plants, convinced that the return on investment would exceed the cost of production.
“If I were to market the 4,000 trees, with each tree giving me about 200 pieces of avocado which I would sell for Sh 44 per piece in the export market, just in the first harvest season, I would achieve a yield. gross of almost Sh 36 million, ”Ms. Ngungi explains.
Like many other farmers who have followed suit, Ms. Ngungi has opted for avocado to increase her income. She sought to capture the growing demand for avocado in export markets, a demand that made the fruit a more lucrative export commodity compared to other cash crops.
Indeed, fierce competition between foreign markets has seen the value of products such as coffee drop dramatically. While a kilogram of coffee in the international market costs around 115 shillings, a kilogram of avocado in Europe and the Middle East, where Kenya exports most of its avocados, costs around 800 shillings, even when the cost avocado production is high. lower than that of coffee.
Avocado is also easier to grow, does not require a lot of pesticides, fertilizers or insecticides, and unlike other cash crops such as coffee which require a lot of water to grow, avocado can survive even in semi-arid conditions, the kind of conditions you will find in most parts of Kenya.
According to data from the Directorate of Horticulture, Kenya produced nearly 365,000 tonnes of avocados in 2019. Ten years earlier, the country produced only 145,000 tonnes, a 60% increase in production. .
While a majority of the avocado produced has been consumed locally, increasing international demand has seen small farmers (who represent 80 percent of the country’s avocado growers) take a keen interest in the export market. . These farmers are now coming together to form pressure groups that will allow them to remove brokers and get better returns for their lawyer in the international market.
“Some brokers encourage farmers to harvest their avocados before they are ready for harvest, telling them they will be ripe before they hit the market. What happens instead is the avocados rot or harden when they get there. Farmers could sell to brokers before the avocado is ready to be harvested out of desperation, ”Ms. Ngungi observes, adding that farmers are now wiser, seeing that coming together to form structured and secure markets is key to solving the problem. the problems they face. The farmer is therefore assured of better prices than those offered by brokers.
Avocado now accounts for nearly half of the country’s fruit exports and nearly a fifth of the country’s horticultural exports. In 2020, Kenya exported nearly 70,000 tonnes of fruit, a 16% jump from 59,000 tonnes exported in 2019, bringing the country 14 billion shillings in foreign revenue.
Between January and March of this year, Kenya exported 26,481 tonnes of avocados compared to 15,101 during the same period last year. Indeed, the value of Kenya’s avocado exports jumped 93% from what was recorded in the first quarter of 2020 to reach 4.26 billion shillings in the first quarter of 2021.
Kenya is currently ranked as the eighth largest avocado producer in the world. The variety that is mainly grown for the export market is Hass avocado, as this variety has a longer shelf life, which makes it more desirable for the export market.
Kenya’s avocado export market is dominated by five large exporters – Kakuzi, Vegpro, Sunripe, Kenya Horticultural Exporters and East African Growers, but smaller players are now coming to enjoy the fruits of this lucrative market.
As it stands, however, the country has yet to fully exploit its potential as an avocado exporter, as only 10 percent of avocado produced in Kenya is exported to overseas markets. The majority is still consumed locally.
Hosea Machuki, chairman and CEO of the farmer lobby group Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya (FPEAK), notes that this could change quickly, however, as farmers outside of traditional growing areas embrace the fruit, thereby expanding the acreage under cultivation.
“While avocado was previously grown mainly in parts of central Kenya, the cultivation of the crop has now moved to other areas such as western Kenya and the Rift Valley, where farmers are uprooting tea plantations to get more income from avocado, ”Machuki said.
He notes, however, that the full potential of smallholder farmers is still hampered by constraints arising from the lack of sufficient capital to purchase and grow high quality avocados and also to participate in export markets.
“Integration into export markets remains a difficult barrier to overcome for individual smallholder farmers. Usually these farmers have to shoulder the initial production and shipping costs on their own, then wait weeks to get paid for their produce, ”he notes.