Demand for food colour pushes Kwale farmers to bixa cultivation

As demand by hotels local and international intensify for bixa which is the raw material for food colour, farmers at the Coast where the crop grows well are emerging as the ultimate winners with demand pushing prices by upto five times.

The crop seed extracts are processed to make food colourings. According to Richard Kanai, the General Manager of Kenya Bixa Ltd, which is buying the Bixa from farmers, better prices are drawing back many farmers to tending the shrub. Others “are even increasing their acreage,” he said.

After the tree was introduced by the Japanese and the Kenyan government in the 1970s, its farming died a slow death due to low market prices and little regulatory follow up by the government. Yet, it’s one of the few crops around that requires little initial investment to earn good returns.

The Bixa shrub is disease, pest and nearly drought resistant, not many browsers eat it and no fertilizer is needed to grow it. In addition, it can be intercropped with regular staples like maize without affecting their yields or causing food shortages.

The areas at the Coast where the shrub is being actively grown are Kwale, Mswabweni, Lamu, Malindi and Kiunga towards the Somalia border. There are two Bixa farming seasons in a year at the Coast. A first-time grower harvests 2kgs of seed a year, but by 3 yars-old, the trees are producing 8 to 15kgs a year.

An acre has roughly 300 trees, and if each tree produces 8kg of Bixa in a year, the farmer earns Sh84,000 selling at the current market price of Sh35 a kilogram. Earning can be more if each tree yields 15kg. “That’s almost pure net profit,” said Kanai. Although expenses can be incurred acquiring compost to make the land fertile, and labour costs per acre can cost up to Sh10,000 a year.

There is also ample scope for growth. Currently, Kenya Bixa Ltd is operating at only 30 per cent of its processing capacity, due to lack of enough Bixa seeds to process. Per year the factory can process 4m kg of seeds, but since 2008 it has not processed more than 1m kg. Currently they process 0.8m kg per year, but without drought Kanai forecasts they can get farmers’ deliveries of up to 1.2m kgs per year to process.

To help address its raw material shortages, Kenya Bixa Ltd has also contracted 100 farmers with 5 acres or more of land to grow for them commercially. They are also accepting yields from farmers with even a few Bixa trees in their fields.

At the same time, the company is leading in setting higher market prices. Initially selling to brokers, farmers earned as little as Sh5 per kg of Bixa. “We now set the price,” said Kanai. The processor is also providing interested farmers with free seeds and agronomical advice to encourage further expansion in production. 

The industry’s local potential is being stifled to some extent, however, by exports of raw Bixa seeds for processing outside. That, says Kanai, is hampering growth of local processors like Kenya Bixa Ltd, with many farmers selling to the exporters who masquerade as agents of Kenya Bixa Ltd. “We can do value addition locally,” said Kanai. He wishes the government would reign in on raw Bixa exporters to protect industries engaged in local processing. 

Besides it use for culinary colouring, oil can be extracted from the seeds to make pesticides and spices. Bixa by products are also used as animal feeds or biogas. Bixa colours beverages, cheeses, cakes, butters, soups, sausages and other foods. 

Among the world’s top producers of Bixa are Bolivia, Brazil, Philippines, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru and the Dominican Republic. Bixa is a native plant of South America.