Some months ago, an American reader wrote to me as a large global buyer of pyrethrum, warning that if we got our farmers back to the wonder crop our current government policies would mean farmers would go unpaid again.
Now, everyone is entitled to their view, but when one of the world’s largest buyers says he won’t be buying from Kenya, we have a problem. For Kenya used to lead the world in pyrethrum, producing some 80 percent of the world’s consumption.
However, in 2006, the global market for pyrethrum collapsed – to a third of previous levels. The culprit was synthetic pyrethrums that were far cheaper than the natural variety, and which swept the market as a replacement ingredient in pesticides of every kind.
But synthetic pesticides then turned out to be rather dangerous. Some were banned – from pesticides for cats, having killed the animals they were used on. Others were found to cause brain damage in human babies. Overall, the number of legal synthetics grew smaller, with many more now under review by the US Environmental Protection Agency and a verdict due later this year, or in 2020, on whether they will be banned or may still be used.
They take longer to break down in the environment – months instead of the one or two days that natural pyrethrum takes – they kill any fish that get caught in the runoff, and some have been found to cause allergies and exacerbate asthma in humans.
As a result, the swing back to natural pyrethrum has been inexorable, with natural pyrethrum sales now growing each year by more than six percent, and world demand back to its pre-collapse levels.
But it is no longer Kenya that supplies that 13,000 plus tonnes a year of natural pyrethrum. Our nation, which once employed more than 200,000 farmers in pyrethrum and supported four million Kenyans, now produces just 200 tonnes a year, grown by 7,000 farmers.
The biggest winners have been Rwanda, followed by Tanzania. Between them these two countries now produce over 80 percent of global demand. For the five years from 2013 to 2017, pyrethrum output in Rwanda grew by an average 88 percent a year, increasing nearly seven fold, as Kenya’s production fell in each of those years by an average 26 percent.
The problem now wasn’t the global market, but the Kenyan industry and most specifically the public sector. The tales of corruption have become repetitive as new thefts are found. Most of our farmers have now left a crop that some waited four years to be paid for.
But as the government and county governments, led valiantly by Nakuru, now turn to rebuilding an industry that Kenya once led, the remaining hurdle is policy. Yields have tumbled, to now less than a fifth of Rwandan yields, as seed stock has dried up, nurseries have become dormant, and farmers supply each other just four low-yield varieties, less than ideal for different altitudes, and drawn from elderly seed stock.
Nakuru, and now the Ministry of Agriculture, are supporting the production of new seedlings this year. But the government is weeks away from promulgating policy with hefty licensing charges on seed producers, locking out any real revival in quality inputs.
But it gets worse. Our world buyer says he won’t be buying from Kenya because of the rules demanding every farmer still be registered. Checking the validity of registration is too onerous, his chances of moving into illegality are high. Beyond Kenya, the selling routes are now closed on administrative breakdown – he sent me links showing the registrations by Kenya’s pyrethrum bodies to sell the extract in the US have expired. Kenyan pyrethrum would be an illegal sell now state-side by our pyrethrum marketers.
Truly, an industry that supported millions – one tenth of our population – is still one we should fly in. Opening a way to seed businesses, and sorting out our sales rules really wouldn’t take rocket scientists. But there lies our challenge now, to get pyrethrum operating as a private sector where corruption isn’t, because no rent seeking was built in. And so we watch. Four million Kenyans, one set of regulations.