| John Njoroge | Nation Media Group

Robbing farmers. A 90kg bag of potato for the price of three plates of chips

It’s a sunny morning at Mau Narok trading centre in Njoro Sub-county of Nakuru. A few metres from the market, Mrs Anne Nduta is working at her four-acre farm.

Dressed in a navy blue and white dress, a matching shawl and gumboots, she takes us round the farm. It’s a hive of activity, with various crops vying to catch a visitor’s eyes.

We stop to admire the healthy green potato crops. Mrs Nduta has been a certified potato seeds producer since 2017. The crop is the mainstay of farmers in the region due to good climate and fertile soil.

Nakuru produces at least 250,000 tonnes of potatoes annually, according to the National Potato Council. However, like many others in the Rift Valley, Mrs Nduta is a worried farmer.

Photo credit: John Njoroge | Nation Media Group

They’ve been suffering because of cartels, low prices due to the flouting of packaging rules and poor supply of certified seeds.

Farmers in Molo, Njoro, Kuresoi South, Subukia and Bahati, who had abandoned pyrethrum, blame their woes on middlemen. They’ve turned ‘millionaire’ farmers into paupers.

Many say brokers, a price determination cartel, make millions with ease.

“Without these people, you cannot access the market. Their tentacles spread as far away as Nairobi. They get a percentage of potato sales and we are always left suffering,” says Mr Robert Rotich, a farmer in Mau Narok.

A broker says a 90kg bag of potatoes bought from farmers at Sh500, sells at around Sh1300 in Nairobi. A plate of chips in fast food restaurants costs between Sh150 and Sh200. This means that a bag of potatoes in Nakuru is equivalent to just two plates of chips.

Photo credit: John Njoroge | Nation Media Group

Farmers say the cost of seeds for an acre is Sh24,000 but after selling the produce, they make a loss of Sh4,000.

“The cost of production is high. We are seeking government intervention to help farmers get better returns,” says Mr Clement Ombuna, a farmer.

Middlemen are responsible for the flouting of the 50kg packaging rule. “We are forced by the cartels to package our potatoes in gunny bags of around 90kg. Those who insist to package their produce in 50kg bags end up selling them at about Sh200 each,” offers Mr John Mbuthia, a Molo resident.

“For the 90kg bags, a farmer gets Sh500. After deductions of harvesting and loading charges, normally Sh100 and Sh50 respectively, the farmer ends up with only Sh350,” he adds. They feel perennially shortchanged by brokers, but there’s little they can do.

Ms Rose Moraa, a Molo farmer, says she once tried to transport her produce to the market but her truck was turned away. “These brokers don’t like newcomers. They sent me back,” she offers.

At the market, farmers’ sweat is sadly traded away at poor prices. The unwritten rule is that the produce must be packaged in bags of about 90kg.

Prices are thrown at farmers in a take-it-or-leave-it manner. With nowhere else to go, most of them take it. About two kilometres away in Njoro town, we meet James Araka at his four-acre field.

He says cartels rule the market, forcing them to pack potatoes in 90kg and sometimes 100kg bags, who then sell at better prices per kilogramme in retail markets. Such bags, the Nation learnt, fetch up to Sh3,000.

Photo credit: John Njoroge | Nation Media Group

A spot check in other markets in the Rift Valley, including Eldoret, Bomet, Molo, Bahati, Narok, Kericho and Nyandarua, revealed that cartels insist on bags of up to 100kg.

Farmers lament that county governments do not enforce the 50kg rule. Earlier this year, the High Court dismissed a case seeking to block the packaging law.

The court threw out a case filed by 17 people that sought to bar the government from implementing Section 42 of the Agriculture Fisheries and Food Authority Act.

It paved the way for the enforcement of the law that makes it illegal to package potatoes in bags that can hold more than 50kg. Offenders can be fined up to Sh500,000 or jailed for a year, or both. Legumes, cereals, roots and tubers are also covered by this law.

High Court judge Weldon Korir ruled that the petitioners did not have evidence to support their case that the law was unconstitutional. Yet, farmers are routinely exploited.

Despite interventions by county governments in Nyandarua and Nakuru, farmers continue suffering at the hands of cartels.

Nakuru recently hired 30 crop inspectors to enforce the packaging regulations, but the well-connected cartels still have their way.

“We are still suffering as the cartels evade raids by county government officers,” states Ms Joyce Nyambura, a farmer.

Nyandarua and Nakuru are the leading potato producers in the country. Nyandarua accounts for 35 per cent of it, which generates about Sh9 billion annually. Records from the county’s department of agriculture show it produces 550,000 metric tonnes in 37,000 hectares.

In Nakuru, potatoes are largely grown in Molo, Subukia, Kuresoi, Mau Narok and Njoro. They also produce carrots, milk, vegetables and pyrethrum.