Cashew nuts are indigenous to Central America, the Caribbean Islands and Brazil. The crop reached the East African Coast from Goa, India, where the Portuguese introduced it in the 1560s.
Although it was grown along the Kenyan Coast for hundreds of years, it was largely used as a source of firewood and as a wind breaker, which protected other crops from gales and occasional cyclones.
The fruit is highly nutritious because of its richness in carbohydrates, fat, vitamins A, B, C and D and minerals, including calcium, iron, copper, magnesium, phosphorus and sodium, among others.
Cashew nut is also a source of lubricants, paints and waterproofing material.
During the Second World War, it was also used for arms production. Its kernels are used as fodder for livestock, which also feed on the crop’s leaves.
It is because of its very wide range of uses that the colonial State in Kenya encouraged its production at the Coast where the climatic conditions are ideal.
This commenced vigorously during the years of depression in the 1930s. So strong was the government’s determination to stimulate export production in Kenya that attempts were even made to introduce cashew nut growing in the lake side areas of Nyanza and the lowland dry areas of Voi, Kitui, Mbeere and Baringo. These attempts failed.
But they succeeded at the Coast, first in Kilifi and Digo districts and later in areas around Mombasa and Malindi.
The government and the Department of Agriculture encouraged cashew nut growing by distributing to farmers seedlings which were grown and partly paid for by the Local Native Councils.
African agricultural instructors were also appointed to disseminate the best farming methods. European investors were encouraged to purchase and process the nuts.
Heavy short rains
Finally, the government assisted in looking for overseas markets and protecting the few Europeans involved in cashew nut trade. The 1933 Cashew Nut Rules were designed to fulfil this last objective.
The rules limited the number of buyers and barred small-scale African and Indian traders from purchasing and exporting cashew nuts.
During the year, W.G Lillywhite, a European farmer and entrepreneur, erected a cashew nut processing factory in Kilifi.
During the year, he was able to purchase over 150 tonnes of the nuts. These were roasted, cracked and skinned and canned at his factory then shipped to the US.
In subsequent years, the Department of Agriculture distributed more seedlings to farmers. Production increased to 13,000 tonnes valued at £18,200 in 1936.
By this time, Europe and South Africa were cashew nuts additional destinations apart from the US. Prospects for the industry were so good that in 1937, the Director of Agriculture confidently reported that “the main difficulties which were encountered in persuading the native growers to cultivate the tree may now be regarded as having been overcome and it is expected that the rapid of cashew nut acreage will occur in the future”. Subsequent events belied this optimism.
Heavy short rains at the Coast during 1937/38 seasons badly damaged the crop’s flowering stage and resulted in very minute and low quality nuts.
The recurrence of heavy rains during the 1938/39 season once more stripped the promising flowers and once again dimmed any prospects of a good harvest.
A dramatic fall in the export price of the nuts aggravated the situation. Wanton grass fires, perhaps lit by growers themselves to demonstrate their disgust with the crop, was the last straw that broke the back of the camel.
Enlarged global cashew nut industry
In 1939, cashew nut exports dropped to a mere 32 tonnes. The industry never recovered from the multiple disasters until the 1950s.
Meanwhile, the Second World War, 1939-1945, further, weakened the fortunes of the industry.
The situation changed for the better after the end of the war and during the 1950s after reconstruction policies in Europe and Asian countries, which had been devastated by the war.
In Kenya, the government intensified cashew nut production through measures similar to those of depression: Trials with selected seeds grown on experimental farms at Kibarani and Gedi, which were then distributed to growers; the hiring of more African agricultural inspectors; stringent measures against destructive fires; the promulgation of new cashew nut legislation; an increase in the number of processors and exporters, respectively to two and four; and increase in prices.
Heavy rains, however, continued to wreak occasional havoc.
The measures paid dividends. In 1955, the Department of Agriculture reported a record crop of 1,094, which was valued at £49,045.
This increase peaked in the 1980s. More farmers are today engaged in cashew nut growing in Lamu and Kilifi counties than during the colonial period.
The biggest world consumers today include China, the European Union, Russia and North America.
Despite the enlarged global cashew nut industry, the crop’s situation in Kenya has deteriorated.
Researches by agricultural economists like Prof Philip Nyangweso of Moi University and his post-graduate students identified challenges as low land and labour allocation to the production of the crop, inadequate or total lack of extension services to farmers and poor farm gate prices.
To change the fortunes of the crop, among other things, farmers need to organise themselves into cooperatives.