East Africa’s ‘onion war’ a boon for Kenyan growers


Traders display onions for sale at Wakulima Market in Nairobi County on January 25, 2024.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Kenyan onion farmers have been at the mercy of money-hungry brokers.
  • But the current scarcity has allowed the producers to flip the script.

In recent months, Kenya has found itself grappling with an unprecedented onion crisis occasioned by a biting shortage locally and exacerbated by heavy rains in Tanzania, the country's primary supplier.

While the shortage raises cost concerns for Kenyan consumers, it’s proving to be a blessing in disguise for local farmers.

It has presented a unique opportunity for growers to dictate prices and signals a radical shift in the dynamics of the local market.

Traditionally, Kenyan onion farmers have been at the mercy of money-hungry brokers who used to set the prices, but the current scarcity has allowed the producers to flip the script.

“It’s our time to reap after years of exploitation. Buyers from Tanzania and other East African countries have forced Kenyan traders to increase the prices they offer to us,” Mr Joseph Waiganjo, a farmer from Laikipia County, told Nation.

Local traders, who spoke to this publication, also acknowledged facing fierce competition from buyers from other East African nations.

This sudden shift in regional demand has been attributed to the substantial destruction of onion farms in Tanzania due to heavy rainfall.

“We import our onions from Mang’ola and Singida in Tanzania. However, the crop has been destroyed by the ongoing rains, and the shortage and high prices are likely to worsen in the coming months if the rains in Tanzania persist. Kenya’s onion production cannot satisfy the high regional demand but Tanzania, South Sudan, and Uganda are all relying on onion supplies from Kenya,” explained Mr Charles Wambugu, an exporter based at Nairobi’s Marikiti market.

Supply chain disrupted

The trader further cited the instability of the Kenyan shilling against the Tanzanian currency, which has gained ground, leading to increased costs for Kenyan traders.

The exchange rate dynamics add another layer of complexity to an already challenging situation.

“The Tanzanian currency started beating the Kenyan shilling after the 2022 General Election. The exchange rate was above Sh21 before the elections, but the Tanzanian shilling has gained against the Kenyan currency to trade at Sh16 at present. This means it’s costlier to import,” explained Mr Wambugu.

Mr James Maina, another exporter, highlighted another reason why Tanzanian onions are preferred by traders.

“Farmers there follow the best agronomy practices. They are patient, unlike Kenyan farmers who use a lot of chemicals to hasten the growth of the produce,” Mr Maina told Nation.

“While Kenyan farmers harvest to sell the same day, in Tanzania, the farmers harvest by uprooting the bulbs without cutting the leaves, which are cut the second day. The bulbs are then left in the sun to dry for a day. With such post-harvest treatment and handling, the onion can stay in the market even for a month. The importer is cushioned against post-harvest losses,” he added.

When supplies from Tanzania are reliable, the importers usually buy the onions between Sh40 and Sh50 per kilo.

But with that supply chain now disrupted, importers are compelled to buy onions from Kenyan farmers at significantly higher prices.

This unexpected turn of events has created a unique window of opportunity for Kenyan growers, who are now selling their produce at prices ranging from Sh110 to Sh170 per kilo, depending on location.

Price fluctuation

Majority of farmers in Kenya produce onions twice a year; between January and March and between August and October.

Their biggest challenge is the price fluctuation as a result of the shifting demand.

In traditional onion markets like Kiawara in Nyeri County, the ongoing onion shortage has led to a visible transformation in business practices.

The number of hawkers selling onions along the Nyeri-Nakuru highway has dwindled, as buyers now head directly to the farms to secure supplies.

Trucks with foreign registration numbers, especially those from Tanzania, are now a dime a dozen.

However, this unexpected windfall for Kenyan farmers is not without its challenges. With most growers being small-scale farmers, it difficult for traders to buy in bulk from one area.

The logistical hurdles of tracing farmers and collecting small amounts of onions over several days add to the overall cost of doing business for traders.

“The cost of tracing the farmers and getting enough produce is higher. One takes days to collect small amounts from small-scale farmers. The government should actualise the aggregation mode of selling farm produce through the proposed industrial parks,” said Mr Francis Mwangi, a trader.

If weather patterns in Tanzania improve, and the entire crop is not destroyed, traders anticipate an improvement starting in May with bumper harvests in Mang’ola and Singida.