As the black smoke spewed out from the chimney into the sky at Pyrethrum Processing Company of Kenya (PPCK) several passers-by thought there was a fire outbreak at the factory.
Their fears were justified as the once vibrant firm in Nakuru Industrial zone had been reduced to a shell.
Mr Haron Tinga, a former employee of the financially troubled company said: "I was shocked and I thought the old factory was on fire, I could hear machines running."
Mr Tinga is one of the more than 300 pensioners who are owed more than Sh2 billion arrears. At least more than 60 pensioners have so far died before being paid their dues.
PPCK, which earned Kenya over Sh10 billion annually in foreign exchange in the 1990s, stopped operating due to lack of raw materials.
The audit report by Auditor-General Nancy Gathungu for the year ending June 30, 2019, showed that the pioneer pyrethrum processing firm was technically insolvent and required a government bailout.
The report showed that PPCK recorded a negative working capital of Sh481 million.
However, with the arrival of the acting Managing Director Mary Moraa Ontiri-Magati, the company is on the trajectory for recovery.
"I'm so happy we have started the processing. We're processing 100 metric tonnes. This is a historical moment. It has taken several years to accumulate 100 metric tonnes of dry flowers to run this factory," said Ms Ontiri.
Pyrethrum is grown in 18 counties with Nakuru, Nyandarua and West Pokot emerging as the main producers of the cash crop that was once christened "White gold of Kenya."
The crop is also grown in Uasin Gishu, Kericho, Kisii, Kiambu, Narok, Nyamira, Nyeri, Baringo, Nandi, Meru, Embu, Murang’a among other counties.
The last run at the factory was a year ago when it crushed a paltry 50 metric tonnes which was an accumulation of 12 months of dry flowers.
“I hope farmers are now motivated, we have cleared their arrears. From January 2022, we reviewed the producer price and farmers will now earn Sh250 per kilo," said Ms Ontiri.
She added: "There is light at the end of the tunnel. At the end of this financial year, we hope to crush 150 metric tonnes of dry flowers. I urge farmers to deliver flowers to PPCK as they stand to reap big in the coming days."
The revival of the sub-sector gathered momentum in April 2020 with the formation of a task force whose recommendations saw President Uhuru Kenyatta appoint a board to run the company.
The company has been run by a board. The last board was appointed 10 years ago.
Ms Ontiri who started her new role on June 9, 2021, worked for the defunct Pyrethrum Board of Kenya (PBK) for over 29 years before it was converted to PPCK.
Since her arrival seven months ago, the future of the struggling company somewhat looks bright.
"PPCK is slowly rising from the ashes of neglect, thanks to teamwork by the staff, management, the board, county government of Nakuru and the national government which advanced the company funds to jumpstart its operations," said Ms Ontiri.
The MD said even as the company faces competition from private processors, it had a competitive edge against its competitors. It has a research unit at Molo. The unit is improving the quality of the pyrethrum.
“Our research unit at Molo has helped PPCK to improve the quality of Kenyan pyrethrum. Our product remains the most preferred in the international markets and that is why I urge farmers to deliver flowers to PPCK," said Ms Ontiri.
The MD said due to the global shift from synthetic to natural pesticides, pyrethrum farmers in Kenya stand to gain more if they improve production.
"After 2023, we want to crush 100 metric tonnes after every four months and in 2025, we want the factory to roar back to its normal activities as it used to do in the 1990s by running round the clock."
She said winning the confidence of demoralised farmers was critical in her revival strategy.
“The company has cleared all the outstanding arrears, some dating back to 2006," she said.
"Our field officers are collecting dry flowers and paying farmers on the spot," she added.
She assured farmers of a steady supply of clean planting materials ahead of the long rains.
The MD announced that the firm had developed new value-addition products targeting the health and agriculture sectors to boost their unsteady financial base.
"Our long term plan is to have 50 per cent of our final product consumed locally and the other half by international markets," she added.
As Nakuru Town grows following its elevation to city status, PPCK must double its production and hit 18,000 tonnes annually to help the city turn its industrial hub into a vibrant zone and create more jobs.
In 2000, the number of employees at the PPCK was more than 2,000 but today the company has 149 workers on its payroll.