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North Rift farmers ditch maize crop for avocado seeking higher returns

Avocado farm 1

Andrew Tubei, the General Manager of Sololo Agriculture Limited in Uasin Gishu County at the farm on October 31, 2021.

That Trans-Nzoia and Uasin Gishu counties are Kenya’s breadbaskets is not in doubt. However, a wind of change is sweeping across the region with farmers embracing export crops like avocado as maize farming becomes less profitable in the wake of the high cost of production.

After incurring losses resulting from high production costs and low returns on maize cultivation, Kevin Koimat decided to try his luck on the avocado to improve his earnings.

The 27-year-old petroleum engineer could only make Sh25,000 from an acre of maize after waiting for a year. For him, the maize venture was no longer attractive in the wake of lucrative avocado farming that is now gaining traction in the North Rift.

In 2017, Mr Koimat shifted to avocado cultivation after learning from other farmers and receiving some training in the production of this fruit from export firm Habex Agro Limited, which is at the moment signing a 10-year purchase contract with farmers.

In the first year of harvesting, the young farmer earned Sh50,000 from three-quarters of an acre of land with production starting earlier than expected.

Normally, the yielding of this fruit starts at three years but with good agronomic practices, they can start at 24 months.

“With avocado, I harvest twice a year and earn twice what I could get from maize, I do not regret having shifted from maize to this crop,” said Mr Koimat, a farmer in Uasin Gishu.

Mr Koimat, who is the face of young farmers in the region, says one of the biggest challenges that they face in their farming activities is convincing their old folks to give them land for an alternative crop.

“It took time to convince my mother to give me some land for avocado farming as she still believed in maize farming,” said the farmer.

However, after seeing the first harvest and returns from avocado, his mother has now agreed to give him more land to scale up his avocado venture.

Mr Koimat is just one of the many farmers who have shifted from growing maize to avocado on a large, medium and small scale.

Returns from avocado are substantially higher than earnings from maize or wheat. For instance, a grower would comfortably make a net of Sh600,000 per annum from an acre of the avocado when the fruit attains peak yields, returns that will take a maize farmer years to earn.

Micah Cheserem, chairman and the owner of Equator Flowers Kenya Limited, says avocado is the surest way of alleviating poverty among farmers, which has been occasioned by reliance on maize.

Mr Cheserem, who has put more than 200 acres of land under the avocado and plans to add more in the coming years, started fruit farming in 2017 as he diversifies from the rose flower.

“We should stop relying on maize and turn to other value crops that bring not only good but reliable income to farmers,” said Mr Cheserem, the former governor of the Central Bank of Kenya.

Equator has opened a state-of-the-art academy in Uasin Gishu where farmers will undergo training in growing avocado.

The initial training will be free but farmers will start paying after some time. Those who will be trained will also have an opportunity to acquire avocado seedlings from the firm’s nursery and sell fruits to the company once their crop matures.

Equator plans to open a value-addition plant as it seeks to start a direct export market in the near future and that is the reason why it is building farmers’ capacity to get more supplies from the outgrowers to meet the requisite export volumes.

The North Rift region has unique harvesting seasons in the country, making the avocados from this region earn farmers a premium price as it comes to the market when all other regions are done with harvesting.

“Our harvesting season runs from July to October when the demand for the produce is very high in the market,” said Norah Cheserem, a director at Equator.

The demand for seedlings has outstripped the supply with counties and private nurseries working round the clock to ensure they have enough to meet farmers’ needs.

Antonina Lutta, senior horticulture officer, Horticulture Crops Directorate (HCD) says the challenge with the growing of avocado, especially in the North Rift where the venture is still new, is getting clean material.

“Clean planting materials has been a challenge, especially in the Rift Valley region where avocado farming is new,” said Ms Lutta.

The officer said there, however, have been efforts by the directorate to licence private nurseries that are now offering high-quality seedlings to the farmers.

Ms Lutta said the challenge has been with the roadside nurseries that are selling low-quality seedlings to the farmers, adding that counties and other State agencies have stepped up efforts to regulate the market.

“We insist on regulated nurseries because of traceability issues, which is important not only to the farmer but also the consumer, hence the need to ensure planting materials are clean,” she said.

Uasin Gishu County chief executive committee member for Agriculture Samuel Yego said there has been a shift in the region that has for years been renowned for maize farming as growers now seek high-value crops to increase their earnings.

Mr Yego said the trend in maize was precipitated by the high cost of planting maize, declined earnings and unpredictable market.

“There has been a shift in the recent years as more farmers move from maize and wheat to high-value crop,” said Mr Yego.

He said, for instance, the cost of planting wheat has in recent years gone up drastically because of the fungi infection that has become notorious in the region.

This has forced farmers to spray their farms several times even as the cost of the fungicide has gone up due to the 16 percent duty charged on the chemical.

“In the next one year, we do not want to be the breadbasket of maize alone but also of diversified high-value crops such as avocados,” said the official.

The county has now been promoting the export of high-value crops in the region and has over the years distributed seedlings for not only avocado but also other plants such as tissue culture banana, coffee and macadamia.

He said the county has so far distributed 150,000 seedlings of avocado, more than 50,000 of tissue culture banana and 700,000 seedlings of coffee to farmers in Uasin Gishu.

Whereas Mr Yego says maize is still crucial for the country because of food security, they are still keen to have farmers diversify to other crops.

In Trans-Nzoia, the county has subsidised the fruit seedlings that it gives to farmers as it moves to attract more people into planting high-value crops.

Trans Nzoia Agriculture CEC Mary Nzomo says the uptake of avocado in the county has been good over the last three years and that they are still sensitising more growers, especially the youth to join this venture.

“We have been doing a serious campaign on avocado development in our county given that studies have shown that the environment here is good for this crop,” she said.

Dr Nzomo said the future of avocado in Trans Nzoia is bright, especially after farmers started harvesting the crop in 2020 and witnessed the returns.

Habex Agro Limited has been giving farmers seedlings on credit with the cost recovered once the farmers start harvesting. This has made it easy for producers to obtain the planting material with much ease.

“Our terms have been very good to the farmers and despite signing a 10-year contract, the price that we give is what is in the market at a given time. This has seen more farmers join the venture,” said the company.

Francis Serem and Beatrice Toroitich are some of the farmers who have benefited from a contract deal with Habex and they say they do not regret scaling down their maize farming.

“I used to grow maize and wheat but I have reduced my acreage under the crop to get into avocado farming as it earns me more than maize and there is a ready market for it,” said Mr Serem.

Murang’a County remains a major producer of avocado in the country and last year accounted for over 30 percent of the total production in Kenya.

The Horticulture Directorate notes that North Rift counties of Trans-Nzoia and Uasin Gishu have in the last year doubled the area under avocado production.