Ernest Muthomi is the chief executive of the Avocado Society of Kenya (ASOK), which brings together farmers, exporters and other stakeholders across the value chain. He spoke to Sammy Waweru on the opportunities in the sector, and how to curb avocado thefts that have reached crisis level.
Where are we as a country in terms of avocados despite being named as one of the leading producers globally?
Kenya is endowed with productive land for avocado farming. We started by producing five tonnes in 1923, currently we are doing over 500,000 metric tonnes per annum.
In Africa, we are leading in exports after surpassing South Africa in 2017. Globally, we are ranked seven. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), we growing avocados on more than 230,000ha. We mainly grow Fuerte and Hass varieties.
Of the two, Hass is the most popular, representing about 80 per cent of our exports because of its uniqueness in shape and taste. Our fruits are lauded globally for having a good taste.
One of the threats the sector faces currently is avocado thefts. Why are they rampant and what can be done to eliminate them?
This is not a Kenyan problem. Being a lucrative and valuable crop, the crime comes naturally, just the way chickens and cows are stolen. This is an international problem, for instance in Mexico, the fruits are heavily guarded by security officers.
To reduce the thefts, ASOK is proposing the use of traceability method. We are encouraging farmers to join the association, where traceability of their produce is assured. Under this method, a farmer is given a unique number or code, which is used when selling the produce. We also call on buyers to purchase fruits that are labelled. Traceability is the only most important weapon against this menace.
The Horticultural Crops Directorate once in a while issues temporary bans on avocado exports. Why is this the case?
I would like to clarify that these are usually not bans, but restrictions. It happens to curb exportation of fruits whose dry matter is very low.
You see, there are producers and exporters who have been working with some government agencies to export immature avocados, what in turn messes the market and damages the reputation of our fruits.
The cases are common in December and January. They have done it for a very long time. Competitive markets are about the best quality.
You recently held an Avocado Africa forum that attracted people from far and wide. Why is it important and of what benefit is it to farmers?
There are many issues happening in the market, ranging from innovations, value addition to science, which farmers are not aware of. Introducing a forum that brings together all actors enhances networking.
Through the forum, local and foreign actors were able to interact and exchange ideas. Our members learnt new technologies on how to process and add value to avocados. These include extract oiling and avocado puree, and ultimately bridge the market gap.
We also discussed climate change, which is here with us, and how producers have to invest in modern technologies such as water harvesting, irrigation and innovations for sustainable production.
What does it take to join the society and what are the benefits?
Being a membership association, a farmer pays Sh3,000 registration fee. We provide extension services, networking, market linkages and support in terms of agronomy. Our members visit orchards at no fee.
For corporates involved in exporting of avocado, they pay Sh25,000 per year. Benefits for them include links to farmers, foreign buyers, financial institutions or donor agencies and there is training on policy issues and advocacy to the government.
What are some of the things farmers must do to reap from the sector?
As much as Kenya is ranked the seventh exporter of avocado in the world, we are still unable to meet the demand. We encourage farmers to embrace right seedlings and good agricultural practices and management.