China gives hope to Kenyan avocado farmers as they navigate into future

They exported only one 20-foot container in 2020.

In Summary

•The Chinese government last month allowed Kenya to export fresh avocado after years of lobbying.

•Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services in drive to support growth in exports.

Members of Mathioya Avocado Farmers Co-operative Society transport fruits from their farms
Members of Mathioya Avocado Farmers Co-operative Society transport fruits from their farms

When President Uhuru Kenyatta traveled to China in April 2019, him and his host Xi Jinping reached a deal on Kenyan avocado exports to the Asian country.

However, Beijing strictly required Kenya to export only frozen avocado. It locked out the fresh produce due to the prevalence of fruit flies locally.

This saw the country export only one 20-foot container of avocado the following year (2020).

According to the Horticultural Crops Directorate, most exporters were unable to meet the requirements with only one out of 100 making it.

The Chinese government however last month allowed Kenya to export fresh avocado after years of lobbying.

Kenya completed a rigorous Pest Risk Analysis carried out by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis) and the National Plant Protection Organisation of China, which identified quarantine pests of concern to China that should be controlled before export.

Kephis on Tuesday announced it has stepped up field audits and facility inspections for more than ten avocado growers and exporters planning to explore the Chinese market.

Kephis is a government parastatal whose responsibility is to assure the quality of agricultural inputs and produce to prevent adverse impacts on the economy, the environment, and human health.

It has completed the required phytosanitary assessments with its trade facilitation undertaking expected to unlock the export opportunity of locally grown fresh avocados valued at more than $1million (about Sh114.6 million) ) annually. 

According to managing director Theophilus Mutui, the regulatory agency is working flat out, to ensure that all eligible avocado growers and packhouses that meet the stringent phytosanitary standards are accorded an opportunity to enjoy the Chinese market prospects.

Speaking at an official visit of Kakuzi Plc Orchards and Packhouse in Murang'a County, yesterday, Kephis general manager in charge of Phytosanitary Services, Isaac Macharia, said the national plant health regulatory agency is actively playing its part to support the export of fresh fruits to China.

This, as the local HASS avocado harvest season opens next month.

Kenya's Agriculture CS Peter Munya and the Chinese Ambassador Zhou Pingjian signed two protocols to facilitate bilateral trade, mainly the export of avocados and aquatic products from Kenya to China in January this year.

According to Dr Macharia, KEPHIS has initiated registration and inspection where several avocado growers have been audited, including listed agro-business firm Kakuzi Plc, their orchards and packhouses.

"The next step for us now is to share the list with our counterparts in China for final registration," Macharia said. 

Kephis will also undertake stringent pre-shipment inspections for all containers before they are exported to ensure compliance with the Chinese plant health standards.

The standards include the mandatory fumigation with methyl bromide and temperature control of all shipments departing Kenya for China.

Kakuzi, a major player in avocado exports has welcomed the move.

“The support will play a crucial role in diversifying Kenya's avocado export markets beyond the current European and Middle East Markets.” managing director Chris Flowers said.

While describing the Chinese market as highly discerning and quality conscious, Flowers said local avocado growers, including small scale out-growers and exporters, are well-positioned to explore the far east market as long as they adhere to the laid down regulations.

This latest developments have also excited individual farmers eying the export market.

Robert Mburu, an avocado farmer in Murang’a is one of the hundreds of farmers who are looking forward to more exports.

Mburu ventured into avocado farming in 2015 after being disappointed with low earnings from coffee.

He started with 1,800 seedlings, which has now increased to above 2,000 trees.

According to Mburu, the accessibility of the Chinese market is exciting for local farmers who are already compliant to the international standards of farming.

Speaking to the Star yesterday, he said he is ready to be audited.

He has documentation of his farming including risk assessment reports done by exporting companies that buy his fruits.

He however appealed to the government to make the audit process accessible to more farmers, saying he has a list of serious avocado farmers willing to be certified.

"Being able to access the Chinese market direct would mean more money for us since we would not have to go through exporting companies,” Mburu said, “Kephis officials have been to my farm and know the kind of farming I do. I would wish to also be audited.”

Mburu uses his orchard as a demonstration farm to teach other farmers on proper farming practices and also acts as a collection centre for avocado buyers.

When he started avocado farming, brokers would buy his fruits for about Sh5 per piece but the prices have steadily rose to up to Sh 25 per piece.

Francis Serem, a farmer in Kapsosio village, Uasin Gishu, ventured into avocado farming in 2018.

He has more than 100 trees that he is already harvesting and another 80 newly planted trees.

He ditched large scale maize farming and ventured into avocados.

“I reduced my acreage under maize to get into avocado farming.This will earn me more money as there is a ready market and production costs are minimal," he told the Star.

He is a member of the Kapsosio Avocado Agri CBO which has more than 78 farmers, contracted by Habex Agro Limited Company for 10 years to grow avocados for the export to the EU, especially Spain and Germany.

The Avocado Society of Kenya has also welcomed the developments in the sub-sector, including the re-opening of the Chinese market.

Chief executive Ernest Muthomi said: “It is not a small achievement, and we are very grateful as the avocado society, we applaud it and we have all that it takes to comply with the standards. We are expecting that we will be able to export avocado to China this season.”

He said the society is working with all stakeholders to capacity build.

“The process has already begun and this is very good because the Asian market has a lot of potential for Kenya, given their population and their proximity to us as a country,” Muthomi said.

Recent data published in the Kenya Economic Survey 2021 confirm that earnings from exports of horticulture produce increased by 3.9 per cent from Sh144.6 billion in 2019, to Sh150.2 billion in 2020.

With the introduction of new high potential markets such as China, the value of horticultural exports is expected to grow, occasioning a positive economic ripple effect.

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