The good and the ugly side of hass avocado farming in Kenya

Okisegere Ojepat is the chief executive officer of the Fresh Produce Consortium of Kenya (FPC Kenya), a trade association that brings together horticultural farmers, traders and service providers.

FPC Kenya promotes production and supply of quality horticultural produce that include fruits and vegetables to the export market.

He spoke on the confusion that has hit the sector following the temporary ban imposed on export of avocados.

Avocado farmers are confused following the directive that Hass and Fuerte varieties are indefinitely banned from export while Jumbo producers can export. Please clarify and why is the move important?

I want to state that nobody has banned avocado exports. It is a temporary restriction. For the last 20 years, avocado was predominantly grown in central and eastern Kenya. We had two main harvesting seasons.

For Fuerte, it ran from February to March and the Hass season would start from August to September. This would be followed by offseason crops which would be available just before Christmas. Then after that, the harvesting window would be restricted to allow the fruits to mature.

But things have since changed although we still have the same practice. We have farmers who have orchards that are irrigated and those plantations are ready even in the offseason.

Again, climatic conditions in the country have changed and we have avocados planted across the country in non-traditional growing areas. Therefore, there was a window that had been provided for the exporters to export such fruits.

However, some exporters have abused this window. Therefore, the industry players, together with the regulator, agreed that we restrict the export window to allow government institutions do a quick assessment and go around the country with extension officers and sample different zones where avocados are grown to ascertain the level of maturity and percentage.

We want some level of control so that we don’t have some people abusing the opportunity by exporting immature fruits. We have a traditional variety called Jumbo whose export currently is not restricted because its time of maturity is different from Fuerte and Hass.

But all said, we need to review the way we formulate our regulations to allow continuous avocado harvesting with strict observations of the maturity index. As an institution, we want to facilitate trade but we call for discipline among stakeholders to avoid harvesting immature fruits.

Avocado is no longer a small crop. It is a major cash crop for Kenya. Last year between January to November, farmers earned Sh14.5 billion after exporting 84.5 million kilos. We must be sober in the way we’re managing the crop to avoid spoiling our reputation in the global market.

The major problem in the industry is certainly the harvesting of immature fruits, what causes this and how can it be curbed?

Greed. We have a few indisciplined people who harvest immature produce to cash in on rising demand. They want to maximise on high prices in the market because it is off season in Peru, Mexico and South Africa, who are our major competitors.

You see, most exporters have been using brokers as their suppliers. Brokers have no time to check on quality. To curb such unscrupulous business practices, we must invest in good methodology for harvesting the fruits.

This will enable us to pick mature fruits that have attained a certain size and weight. Fruits should be picked from a tree and not shaken and then picked from the ground as some brokers advocate for. This spoils quality as both mature and immature fruits are harvested. We must be disciplined, suppliers must be educated on quality and how to handle it.

Also, our weakest link is regulation. Horticulture Crop Directorate and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) must ensure that nobody is allowed to ship out immature fruits. Exporters and growers who break the law should be punished; their licences revoked or suspended to deter them from repeating the mistake.

We export beans, peas, vegetables and other horticultural products as well as cut flowers. For these crops, we never export immature produce because we know the repercussion. We need to bring the same discipline to the lucrative avocado sector.

Avocados are the latest target of criminal gangs seeking to cash in on rising export prices. What can be done to save farmers?

First, I don’t subscribe to the notion of criminal gangs. I have not heard any of my members complain their fruits have been stolen. I read it on social media. I think these claims have been blown out of proportion. When the season is closed and we find you with avocados, you should explain the source. It’s all about indiscipline and greed. Perpetrators of such activities should be punished; charged with trespass and stealing.

What does it take for a smallholder farmer to export avocados and can the process be simplified to bring many people onboard?

There has never been a complication in the export process. That’s a misconception. Export is easy. We know what is required. You can export 100 kilos or 100 tonnes. All you need is to disclose the source of your fruits. You either have your farm or you’re buying from other farmers. Just declare the source and that is all we need. People need to be educated on simple requirements like registering a business entity.

Some markets require specific certifications for you to supply. Anybody can export as long as they are willing to be guided. Avocado export is not a preserve of a few people, it’s like any other business as long as one is keen and follows instructions. Once you have registered your company, you can then be supported through training on the dos and don’ts that govern the trade.

China, one of the biggest avocado markets in the world, only imports frozen produce. Does this disadvantage smallholder farmers?

Absolutely not. The reason why China is importing frozen avocado from Kenya is that we told the Chinese that we can send what they want. The Chinese want fresh avocados that are pest-free. Kephis and its equivalent in China are working out on pest-risk analysis to guarantee the Chinese authorities that when we will be exporting our fruits, we will not export pests.

Chinese authorities want to have a post-harvest treatment just in case there is any fruit that has a pest on it. It’s not our preferred mode of doing business though. For us we export fresh avocados in different forms based on market requirements. Frozen avocado is just one option but not a mandatory requirement.

There is a planned visit by the Chinese authorities to Kenya to confirm if we have put in place mechanisms that will guarantee them that avocado exports from Kenya are pest-free.

There have been reports that chefs in Europe (Kenya’s main market) and other parts of the world are ditching avocados for fava beans, green chilli, lime and coriander when making guacamole as the fruits are becoming expensive and their production has a huge negative environmental impact. Does this concern players like yourself; that the end of avocado is near?

This is not something I’m worried about. The chefs should be looking at how our avocados are produced using the best practices; how many people the trees support and how ethical they are grown as producers respect human rights and other global labour conditions.

Our disadvantage is that Kenya has never spoken loudly on how many people are positively impacted by the growth of the fruits in the country. We don’t talk about it. If we can talk and document such success stories, we would do better.

Unfortunately, we’re still weak when it comes to communication to market our successes in the global market. There is no single report in this country that shows that avocado is causing negative environmental impact.

We’re in the tropics. The amount of rainfall that we receive is quite a lot. It rains in some parts of the country and in others it doesn’t rain. We’re just careless when it comes to water harvesting. We get more than enough rains but waste our water and allow it to run down into the sea and that becomes a waste. If we can harvest that water, the more trees we plant, the better for the environment.

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