Why farmers at the Coast are no longer nuts about cashew

Cashew nut farmer and processor Mark Chome, Kilifi

Mr Mark Chome shows some of the dried cashew nuts at his shop in Tezo, Kilifi County on July 1, 2022. He says he looks forward to the growth of the cashew nut industry that is slowly making a comeback.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

It grows in abundance at the Coast and is one of the most popular snacks, but the prohibitive pricing makes it unaffordable for most people – a 250gm packet of roasted cashew nuts retails for between Sh800 and Sh1,000 depending on the brand.

For Hedlam Jaji Mpunga, a farmer in Tezo ward in Kilifi County, such prices are a mirage as he struggles to get even Sh50 for a kilo of his raw cashew. The retired school teacher reminisces about the good old days when cashew farming was the main economic activity in Kilifi, earning good returns for farmers, enabling them to take care of their families, build good houses and have some disposable income.

“Nowadays, there are many economic problems facing people here, it is sad to see women going to quarries to do manual labour to earn a living instead of tending their cashew nut trees,” he says.

Closure of factory

He blames the decline on the closure of the state-owned Kilifi Cashew Nut Ltd in 1990, following decades of mismanagement. He recalls that when the factory was operational, farmers were motivated to cultivate the crop due to good returns. Kilifi’s economy was booming as many people secured direct and indirect employment as a result of cashew nut farming.

When the factory ground to a halt, many farmers, himself included, cut down their cashew nut trees.

“Following the closure of the factory, people neglected cashew nut farming, trees were overgrown and some cut them down, thus there was very low production,” says Mpunga.

In the good old days, he had 12 acres under cashew nuts on his farm, and another four acres on leased land nearby. He remains hopeful, however, that the cashew will bounce back.

Offering good prices

New factories are coming up locally, and they are offering good prices, so farmers are starting to revive the neglected trees. He laments that none of the politicians looking for their votes have concrete plans on how to revive the industry.

Mpunga says that leaders at the local level, more than governors or MPs, should have a clearer understanding of the needs of the farmers. He hopes that organised production and marketing strategies, like those in the coffee and tea sectors, can be established to support cashew farmers.

For now, they are at the mercy of brokers and cartels who take advantage of poor farmers by fixing prices so that they pay them a pittance before reaping big on selling to processing factories in Nairobi and Thika.

Between 1987 and 1990 when the processing factory was closed, a kilogramme of raw cashew nut ranged between Sh12 and Sh15, a tidy sum at the time, yet more than 30 years later, some processors are still buying the nuts for as low as Sh30 and Sh40 per kilogramme from farmers.

9,595 hectares under cashew nuts

A report by the Nuts and Oil Crops Directorate for 2021, which was released in April this year, indicates that 9,595 hectares in Kilifi County are under cashew nuts, a slight increase from 9,445 in 2020.

According to the report, 3,387 tonnes of cashew nuts valued at Sh162.59 million was produced last year in Kilifi County. The report also indicated that Kilifi was among the counties that recorded lower farm-gate prices, averaging Sh48 per kilo.

Time consuming

A small-scale cashew nut processor, Macdonald Chome, says processing of raw nuts is very expensive, hence the high prices in supermarkets and shops. He buys a kilo at Sh50 from farmers but before the product reaches supermarket shelves, a time consuming and expensive process would have been undertaken.

“Raw cashew nut has a lot of moisture, from the tree it has to be dried for not less than three days before being steamed and separated,” said Mr Chome who operates a manual nut processor in Tezo. After separation, the processor then grades and packs the nuts according to the needs of a client.

He sells a kilo of processed nuts, graded as W240 at Sh900 and that the bigger the processed nuts, the more expensive they are.

Ban on exports

Chome, whose clients for the processed nuts are mostly from Nairobi, says the ban on exports of raw cashew nuts, which was imposed over 10 years ago, has helped local processors who can buy the nuts at affordable prices. Prior to the ban, local processors were finding it hard to get raw nuts as many farmers opted to sell to exporters.

However, as the export ban on raw nuts benefited the local processors, it hurt the farmers who were previously able to sell directly at much better prices to traders serving the Japanese and Chinese markets.

The cartel-like behaviour driven by the local nut processors involved politicians who were able to push through rules in Parliament and the Ministry of Agriculture.

Local processing companies are thus able to get nuts on the cheap and reap big on the finished product as the farmer gets a pittance. Exporters were paying local farmer more than double what the local processors pay.

Nuts rotting in the fields

To add insult to injury, the local processors are unable to take up all the product, leaving nuts rotting in the fields for lack of a market, yet there is high demand in China, Japan and other Asian countries, as well as in Europe.

“Some people are even cutting cashew nut trees for firewood,” he says.

He is hopeful that the incoming government, both at county and national level, will pay attention to cashew nut farming.

“Previous governments have always said that they will assist farmers, but they have not,” says Chome.

He recalls that as a child, he used to see agricultural extension officers from the processing factory visiting farmers to educate them on how to grow the crop. This does not happen anymore.

Decline

The Nuts and Oil Crops Directorate report also notes that the performance of the cashew nut sub sector in the country has been on a decline over the years and that the outlook remains dim.

“Rampant tree felling for supply of firewood for domestic and industrial use is a major threat to the existing tree population, overshadowing the ongoing replanting initiatives,” states the report.

The report covers other coastal counties, with the exception of Mombasa. It also states that low farm-gate prices for cashew have also contributed to the lack of interest by the farming community in the cashew nut growing zones.

The report further states that although replanting was being countered by tree felling, the year 2020 recorded a marginal increment of the total estimated area under cashew.

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