One year later: ‘We beat the odds, we survived Covid-19’

Thu, May 20, 2021

Besides the export market, the domestic market also flourished during this Covid-19 period, with increased demand for fruits and vegetables

The advent of Covid 19 has had an adverse effect on horticulture in Kenya, as in other countries. The pandemic has led to the closure of many businesses, loss of jobs and loss of personnel throughout the economy, as in every other sector.

An assessment done by Hivos East Africa aimed at understanding the effect of the pandemic on women workers in flower farms revealed that there was increased tension among the women caused by the fear of losing their jobs. The ability to feed themselves and their families being their major worry, these women are clinging to the hope that the spread of Covid-19 will be curbed to avoid further uncertainties. The research further reveals that a majority of workers were subjected to frustrations after they were laid off, while others given compulsory unpaid leave. The research therefore calls for more interventions by the national and county governments to assist women and youth in the face of a global calamity.

Besides being a major foreign exchange earner in this country after tourism and having overtaken tea, horticulture has also been credited with the creation of employment to many people, especially women and the youth.

Indeed, the horticulture industry in Kenya has since the 1970s continued to gain popularity as one of the more successful forms of farming ventures and agribusiness, especially for SMES. In the recent past, more land has been put under horticulture, thanks to the rich, wide geographical and climatic temperate conditions that allow these crops to thrive well as well as advances in technology such as the construction of green houses. Availability of water for irrigation has also made horticulture possible in areas of low rainfall or areas receiving an uneven distribution of rains.

“Digging silangas (large water pans) has enabled us collect enough water to irrigate our crops throughout the year now that we receive heavy reliable rains only once in a year,” said Chris Masika, a French beans farmer in Yatta, Machakos County.

“Before this French beans initiative, most youth were idling around the village waiting for lorries coming to fetch sand for them to do the loading, which was a very unreliable source of income as these lorries are not as frequent. Some people migrated to Thika and Machakos towns, leaving the rural areas underdeveloped. But nowadays, hey vijana wanaomoka, they are earning from the farming and their lives are improving daily,” said Masika with a smile.

Statistics show that there was a considerable increase in the volume of Kenya’s exports in 2020 even with the advent of Covid-19. Total exports recorded a 7.8  per cent increase, with horticulture recording an increase from $109 million to $122 million.  “Covid 19 had little to no negative effect on horticultural farming, especially because food is an essential requirement and actually there was havoc as people rushed to stores to stock more vegetables for fear of a total lockdown. This led to increased demand.

Masika urges the county government to be more supportive to of the youth, especially those practising horticulture in dry lands, by providing extension services.

“There is a need for the government to ensure there are agricultural officers all over the country to train farmers to ensure that we maintain the international market set standards,” said Masika. He also called for greater regulation of the chemicals allowed in the country,  saying most of the agricultural chemicals finding their way to the Kenyan market are already banned in most EU countries, the destination of many horticultural products.

“It is difficult for most farmers to detect wrong herbicides and pesticides. This is a government mandate to protect farmers and consumers from toxic chemicals. It is such a painful thing to see our products being rejected in international markets, yet the farmer is incompletely informed and ends up innocently incurring huge losses,” laments Masika, who also is the founder of AYAWE (African Youth in Agro Ecology for Wealth Creation), an initiative to promote the youth in agrobusiness.

Sheila Wambui, the managing director of Aberdare Bloomers Ltd, said that some people who lost their jobs have turned to selling vegetables and fruits.

“Kenyans have a way of coping with situations; you saw them opening groceries in their car boots. This not only enabled them to earn extra coins, but also enhanced food distribution during the pandemic,” says Wambui.

Besides the export market, the domestic market also flourished during this Covid-19 period, with increased demand for fruits and vegetables.

“Covid 19 was an eye opener to many Kenyans on the importance of good health. People became more concerned about what they are eating,” says Augusta Muthoni, a horticulture farmer specializing in medical and aromatic plants (MAPs). Muthoni, who has her demonstration farms at Kagaa, Lari in Kiambu County, has been in the herbs business for about three years and her biggest challenge is teaching people to include herbs in their daily nutrition routines.

“Turmeric, baobab powder, thyme and black seed oil have been fast-moving since the onset of Covid-19, and most times the demand has been exceeding the supply. When the Ministry of Health says that most Covid-19 patients are recovering on home care basis, they fail to mention that proper nutrition and use of herbs is a part of the home care treatment that is leading to more recoveries of Covid-19 patients,” says Muthoni. Event though restrictions on movement have negatively affected access to customers living outside Nairobi, she says this has also had a positive impact as it has prompted more people to start herbs farming in their homes, even those in urban settings with limited spaces.

“Most of the clients I have been training on herbs farming are practising it in kitchen gardens and polythene bags in their balconies and verandas. When more land is converted to agricultural use, it is an indication that the country is headed in the right direction in terms of nutrition and food security.

Lack of value addition has been a major challenge to horticultural farmers. Where in most cases value addition mainly comprises of cleaning, sorting and packing for fresh products, there is a need for advancement into drying and processing of some of the products.

“When international freights were halted, most farmers who export fresh herbs were stranded. I tried my best to help most of them with my solar drier; it was sad to see most of us seeking to use a small drier; this is an area where I feel the local governments should come in to promote small-scale horticultural farmers with provision of such facilities like all-weather driers. These can drive farming a notch higher. Muthoni, who recently established another demonstration farm at Ndumberi in Kiambu County, further calls for more youth to engage in MAPS, saying it is the most recent advancement in horticulture and has promising returns.

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