It’s in the country’s interest to protect avocado growers from ruthless cartels

 Farmers visit a Hass avocado nursery in Wundanyi, Taita Taveta County. Most avocado growers sell the fruits to brokers who buy them at low price and quantities.

Photo credit: Lucy Mkanyika I Nation Media Group.

If the avocado was ever a humble fruit, today it has come to be regarded as the food of the gods, right up there with ambrosia and honey. Indeed, it has become such a precious health food that demand for it has far outstripped supply, in the process bringing a load of miseries to those who grow it as a cash crop.

A relative newcomer in Kenya as a commercial enterprise, avocado growing is still in its infancy but its challenges seem to be universal, judging from complaints from all over the world during harvest seasons. The main one is theft of the fruits just before they mature and as soon as they do.

Earlier in the week, avocado farmers in parts of central and eastern Kenya lamented that they had been spending sleepless nights guarding their trees against thieves who harvest truck-loads of the fruit in the middle of the night.

Their cries were heart-rending. Some claimed they uprooted coffee or tea plants and replaced them with avocados, which promised them better returns, and now they are helplessly watching their investments being plucked at will by organised gangs they are unable to stop.

Their agony is quite understandable, and it is time the authorities devised ways to contain the cartels that have switched from the traditional cash crops and are taking over the avocado trade.

While it is true that there is no way the police can be expected to guard avocado trees in individual farms, this doesn’t mean that government authorities – both county and national – are entirely helpless.

The first thing they should do is to identify those brokers who don’t grow avocados but are always transporting pickup-loads of the fruit to collection centres. These are the chaps who buy stolen fruits and they should be made to explain their sources.

Secondly, there are very few companies that actually process and export avocados, and they usually have a registered list of suppliers. On the whole, they do a clean business and they should readily identify whether those suppliers are equally clean.

They have the means to identify stolen fruit from carefully picked ones, for obviously, those who steal avocados do not have the time to observe the protocols of picking or sorting out the mature fruit from the immature ones.

Their aim is quantity, not quality. This means the firms that buy, package and export the fruit without using the right processes are responsible for the rampant thefts and they can be stopped.

Violent vigilantism

It is not too late for the country to safeguard the avocado export market which is growing rapidly as a top foreign exchange earner, while at the same time helping the grower to make a reasonable living.

A situation where avocado growers are being abducted in broad daylight, tied up and their fruits harvested as they watch is a harbinger of worse things to come, and they may resort to violent vigilantism.

There is something to admire about the miraa growers of Meru. Apparently, when they catch a thief in the act, they either cut off a limb or two, or maim in other ways that ensures the culprit will never be a repeat offender.

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Exactly a month ago on this page I warned those of my readers who care about such things that they were obsessing on the wrong things at a time they should be debating on the proposed housing levy (tax).

I wrote: “There seems to be more than meets the eye on this fixation with the housing levy, which may lend credence to the belief that it is a red herring to distract the attention of Kenyans from proposed taxation measures that will have even more dire consequences in the long run. Almost forgotten is the 16 per cent VAT increase on fuel prices that will have a spiral effect on the prices of everything else, especially essential food commodities…. and transportation costs that will affect, not just the middle class, but everyone else striving to stay afloat in this tanking economy.”

I certainly was not a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but the prediction has come to pass with a vengeance. As many people frothed in the mouth over the proposed housing tax, they forgot that it would affect only a small proportion of salaried middle class, while the fuel tax would affect millions of Kenyans in ways they could not fathom—until now. Today they need reminding that in Kenya, once the prices of goods shoot up, they never come down, and barring a miracle, the poor motorists will be buying a litre of petrol at Sh195.53 for now, and at Sh200 by the end of the year.

Yes, this housing levy thing was, indeed, a red herring dragged all over the place to confuse “hustlers”, which leads me to the inevitable conclusion that it would have made a lot more sense for the “cost of living” protestors to pick on the single issue of the 16 per cent VAT on oil products right from the word go instead of making a din over a still incomprehensible housing deal.

Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor; [email protected]