Brokers and drought toughen lives for Kilifi's makuti traders

 Makuti Women Group chairperson Joyce Mwahunga at Diamond junction on the Kilifi-Malindi highway. The drying up of coconut trees and mushrooming of brokers has undermined the business as the women’s target customers were those who had no idea where to find makuti.


Photo credit: Maureen Ongala I Nation

On the side of a roadside at the Diamond junction on the Kilifi-Malindi highway, a group of women eke out a living selling makuti.

Makuti is made from the sun-dried leaves of coconut palms. It is covered with nylon paper and supported with old tyres to protect them from sun or rain damage.

But for the last two years, coconut trees in the region have been drying up at an alarming speed, meaning that the traders no longer have enough stock to sell.

The remaining ageing trees do not yield enough leaves, and farmers have had to increase prices.

Makuti is used in coastal counties mostly for roofing houses and sometimes for fencing.

It is used not just by low-income families to roof their houses and other structures but also by others who think it looks good.

Ms Joyce Mwahunga, chairperson of the Makuti Women Group, said that because makuti is scarce these days, they must search for it far and wide.

She has been in the makuti business for over 20 years.

Women travel to Chonyi, Kaloleni and Chumani in Kilifi North constituency to get the stock, she added.

Business was once good, she said, and women used their profits to educate their children and take care of other domestic needs.

But the drying up of coconut trees and mushrooming of brokers has undermined the business as the women’s target customers were those who had no idea where to find makuti.

“The brokers target foreigner settlers, tourist hotels and villa owners who were our main customers and now take them directly to the farmers to purchase the makuti,” she added.
Ms Mwahunga said transporting the makuti from farms to the market is expensive due to high fuel costs.

“You can spend at least Sh300 on a matatu, depending on where the makuti is being transported to,” she said. 

“We struggle to get the makuti to sustain our business and earn money for food and other needs for our families, but sometimes it takes up to one month before we break even because brokers are the buyers now and know where to get them.”

Farmers sell a single palm leaf for Sh10 but they prefer foreigner buyers because they buy the stock in bulk, she said.

Prices increased from Sh5 to Sh10 due to the drought.

“Sometimes brokers would bargain and the farmer would reduce the prices from Sh10, but when we try to ask, they brush us off, saying we buy small stock. Sometimes they deny us the makuti,” Ms Mwahunga said.

The women sell a bunch of makuti for Sh100.

Ms Joy Tima, from Chonyi, is a coconut farmer who once had more than 30 coconut trees, but only three now remain. She is also a makuti seller.

But she said the once booming business was on the verge of collapsing because makuti is now scarce.

She said makuti is scarce and traders like herself must travel deep into villages to get them, unlike before, when they could place orders to the farmers and send a vehicle to pick up and deliver the material to the market.

“The market was good, and we could place our orders while attending to customers at the market. But today, you must plan to go and look for the makuti yourself,” she said.

Ms Tima said the government had neglected coconut farmers, making it harder for women to fend for their families.

“We spend all day in villages looking for makuti for sale and alongside roads under the hot sun and rains to get money to buy food, pay rent, take our children to school and hospital, all depending on the coconut tree,” she added. 

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