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February 21, 2019

WYCLIFFE MUGA: Avocado is the new quail


For most of this year I have been writing about the intricacies of agriculture policy, and trying to shed light on both how difficult it is to get this right, and how absolutely essential it is that we do so.

My reason for this is given that our country has roughly 70 per cent of the population making a living as small-scale farmers, the success or failure of such farming is a major determinant of whether we as a nation will prosper.

And for such small-scale farmers, some of the subjects that routinely dominate our news headlines, such as the latest mobile phone app “breakthrough innovation” are beside the point.

It is true that there are any number of reported innovations based on the mobile phone, which are supposed to facilitate improved farm productivity. But such improvements only follow once a farmer has identified a crop that can be grown profitably on a small farm. Of course it is not just the growing of such crops that takes place in small rural farms. There is also livestock and poultry.

Plus,there is also, if I may add it, crocodiles. There is apparently an insatiable appetite for crocodile leather goods (shoes, handbags, wallets, belts, etc), particularly in the Far East, which is currently the most sought after emerging market for luxury goods and services. I once visited a crocodile farm at the Coast and was stunned at the potential profits available if you get it right. But alas, getting it right is not easy.

Crocodiles are not poultry or livestock. They are wildlife. And so you need special permits before you can hope to start a crocodile farm, and also have to prove that you have employed staff adequately trained to look after these crocodiles, and to rear them diligently until they are big enough to be slaughtered.

How exactly a giant full-grown crocodile is slaughtered ­— without damaging even one square inch of its precious skin — is in itself a story worth telling, but I shall save it for another day. Suffice it to say that this is a highly skilled category of farming. And personally I have nothing but sympathy for an agro-entrepreneur in Central Kenya who made headlines about a decade ago, when his crocodile farm failed.

One interesting detail is that — apparently — none of his neighbours were aware that he was breeding crocodiles on his land. The prudent entrepreneur, knowing only too well what a fuss would be created by his neighbours if they knew that crocodiles were being bred so close to their homes, somehow endeavoured to keep his enterprise a secret.

Unfortunately, he was not very good at it. And in due course, he gave up and abandoned the crocodiles to their fate. They all subsequently died, and only when an incredible stench arose from his walled compound did the residents break in to see what on earth was going on.

The sight that met their eyes ­ —several slimy pools, each containing dozens of rotting crocodile carcasses — is one which no doubt they will never forget. By then the crocodile breeder himself had long fled that village, never to return.

But his example serves to remind us that if most of our small-scale farmers are still poor, it is not for lack of trying.

About five years ago, some of us believed we had found the perfect small-scale farm enterprise: Whether in rural farms or in small urban backyards, the rearing of quail was proclaimed to be a passport to great riches.

As with crocodiles, this project involved rearing something that had no real market within our borders, but which we were feverishly assured had limitless global demand. Well, all I will say is that if indeed there is a ‘quail millionaire’ in this country, I have yet to hear of him (or her).

However, we have since moved on to a new obsession in our tireless search for a profitable agrarian enterprise. It has been whispered to me that avocado — yes those tasteless avocados which most of us Kenyans don’t really care for — are something “foreigners” cannot get enough of, and thus are a golden key to instant wealth.

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