For every kilo of cabbage, Edwin Ochieng’, a fresh produce exporter pays a Nyandarua farmer Sh9 to Sh21, depending on the season. He sells the cabbage in Somalia for $0.75 (Sh82.65) per kilo, making more than eight times in profit.
Three months ago, he says, cabbages were in plenty.
“Farmers were begging me to buy from them lest their cabbages rot in farms,” he says.
“But as of yesterday, I was struggling to get the same quality and quantity of cabbages because most farmers plant and harvest at the same time, leading to scarcity or a glut in the market,” he adds.
For years, cabbage farming has been seen as the least lucrative for farmers. The farmers blame unpredictable markets, exploitation by brokers, and the skyrocketing cost of production.
However, Mr Ochieng’, who has been in the cabbages export business for five years now, and exports 12,000 kilos of cabbages to Mogadishu every month, says farmers are to blame for the low prices as they do not understand the dynamics of markets dipping and rising.
“You’ll find all farmers growing cabbages at once, instead of spacing the planting seasons so that they don’t harvest at the same time. If you have 10 acres of land, why plant the cabbages on all the 10 acres at once, knowing too well that your neighbour has also planted on 10 acres? Section the land and plant this month, then next month, so that you’re able to sell year-round,” he says.
Monica Wawira from Kinangop, Nyandarua is among the many cabbage farmers counting losses. She says many seasons she has had to feed her cabbages to livestock for lack of market, or poor prices offered by brokers.
“The biggest challenge with small-scale farmers is they lack means of transport to deliver their cabbages to the market, while the brokers have lorries, understand the market trends and which part of the country to transport the vegetables to,” says Ms Wawira.
She recalls the period between December and March was the best time to harvest when most parts of the country were dry, but the fortunes have since changed due to similar timing by other farmers and importation of the vegetables from Tanzania.
“County governments and the national governments have heavily invested in irrigation in dry areas that were our ready markets. Now most of our vegetables rot in the farm,” she says.
A few months ago, she planted cabbages on two acres anticipating to earn Sh800,000, selling a piece at Sh20. But she got less than Sh100,000.
“I had invested about Sh150,000 in inputs and labour, I never even recovered the cost of production,” she says.
She adds that the solution lies in the construction of potato and vegetable processing plants and cold storage rooms.
“The processing and cold storage rooms in Ol Kalou town should be completed, in addition to others in sub-counties where small-scale growers can store their vegetables awaiting transportation to Ol Kalou processing plant. Still, the government can establish collection centres, set days when farmers can harvest, and have the cabbages collected to the value addition plants,” says the farmer.
Julius Muthee, a farmer from Pesi in Laikipia says cabbage farming is like a gambling investment, where you make a kill in one season, followed by huge losses in the next season.
“The unpredictable weather patterns and climate change are affecting us. Erratic rains make it impossible for farmers to plan. Sometimes the crop is hit by drought at a time when it should be raining or it rains so heavily destroying the crop,”he says.
He adds that changing weather patterns also affect farmers using irrigation due to pests, insects, and diseases that make the cost of production even higher.
Like Ms Wawira, he laments about the costs of production with most pesticides and fertiliser prices increasing by 25 percent to 50 percent this year.
“Also, most pesticides and other inputs are below standard, you cannot compare them with what was being sold 10 years ago,” said Mr Muthee.
Like other farmers, Mugweru Karanja from Ndaragua is concerned about the quality of the inputs, some of which destroy the crop or fail to give the desired results.
“I remember as a boy it was lethal not to adhere to agricultural officers or instructions on the leaflets on how to apply the chemicals. A crop would easily bleach or dry if sprayed with excessive chemicals. But what we’re buying now fails to work. Even the retailers advise farmers to apply double the amount shown in the instructions leaflet for the chemical or foliar fertilisers to work,” said Mr Karanja.
On solution to reliable market, the farmer says the government should control the importation of vegetables and invest in value addition industries.
“A farmer will plant the cabbages targeting to sell at between Sh15 and Sh20 per piece, but the brokers will decide to buy as low as Sh10 for three pieces of the best quality cabbage, yet, the same is sold at kilos in the international markets and supermarkets. A rough calculation will show you that the brokers earn up to 200 percent profit from one piece of cabbage,” says Mr Karanja, adding that the cost of production has also gone up as he spent about Sh80,000 to plant an acre of cabbages compared to Sh50,000 early last year.