Patrick Karanja is a smallscale farmer in Murang’a district, Central Kenya. In the late 90’s, he uprooted over 100 coffee trees from his four acres of land in a bid to raise his income by growing avocadoes. From a first five trees, he now owns 25, selling the fruit to Sunripe, a private horticultural company that exports them to the European Union.
He is now one of hundreds of Kenyan small scale farmers enjoying a market that is growing at more than 20 per cent a year, at ever higher prices.
For Karanja, the changeover has paid in other ways too:“In between my avocado trees I grow sweet potatoes, maize and beans, something that I couldn’t do while growing coffee because the coffee trees would drain all the nutrients, so these other food crops wouldn’t grow optimally,” he says.
But the greatest bonus has been the take-off in the avocado market itself, both abroad and locally, that has lifted prices per fruit from Sh1 to Sh6 each.
“The market prices for avocado have been going up for the last five years and trust me this is the fruit to watch,” says Ms Esther Wangari, the general manager of Olivado Kenya (EPZ) Ltd, an avocado processing company from New Zealand that four years ago established its East African base in Nairobi to buy fruit from farmers for processing into oil.
However, building its supplies has meant encouraging many farmers into a new variety of avocado.
Since the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) introduced the fruit in Central Kenya in the late 70’s the country has grown just two varieties.
Hass, a warty, medium sized, roundish fruit that turns purple at full maturity, has a tough, pebbly skin, with an impressive shelf life. Fuerte, a Mexican-Guatemalan hybrid is a shiny-green, pear-shaped fruit that weighs 250 to 450 g with high oil content.
More than four fifths of the trees in Kenya are Fuerte, which was in high demand in the late 1970s and early 1980s when most farmers were establishing their orchards.
But market trends now favour Hass, with horticultural companies like Olivado Kenya and KARI encouraging farmers to plant Hass or invest in grafting services that change Fuerte into Hass.
However, across both types of avocado the market is growing.
Local consumption is rising, now to 1-2 kg per person annually, driven by consumers’ growing awareness of the fruit’s high nutritional value.
And Afriganics East Africa, a leading exporter of East African fruits and vegetables, reports that 2500 tonnes of avocadoes were exported in 2009, compared with 1800 tonnes in 2008. This saw the fruit move to account for more than a sixth of the country’s entire horticultural exports, the company claims.
It is a surge in sales that has been ascribed in part to the increased online marketing of Kenyan avocado crops. But it has also been aided by new and expanding uses for the fruit, with rising demand for avocado oil from the cosmetics industry, largely in France and Germany, for cleansing creams, moisturizers, skin care products, hair conditioners, lipstick, sun lotions, bath oils and makeup bases.
Kenya has gained particularly from this new market as one of the few leading worldwide avocado exporters based in Africa. Moreover, 85 percent of the Kenyan exports are coming from smallholders.
However, this has required that farmers adopt international food safety requirements. The European Union and particularly the United Kingdom, which consumes many of Kenya’s avocados, have become particularly sensitive to food safety issues.
Farmers in Kenya have therefore had to comply with EUREP-GAP regulations that smallholders be trained on quality, traceability and conformity of avocado farming and processors on Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP).
However, the drive to achieve international standards hasn’t kept all of the Kenyan fruit’s markets open, with the country still down by Sh200 million a year as a result of a never resolved row that started in 2008 with South Africa - previously a major importer of Kenyan avocadoes – when it blocked the Kenyan fruit on the grounds that it was carrying fruit fly that was causing the fruit to rot.
The Kenya Horticultural Development Authority deny the claim and argue the ban is being driven by the interests of South Africa’s own, seasonal avocado industry.
And there the matter rests, unresolved.
Yet even without a market in South Africa, Kenya has competitive advantage on its side. In most countries, avocado production runs for shorter seasons than in Kenya, sat on the equator.
The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) is also working at ways to increase the fruit’s shelf-life – from 5 to as many as 10 days – by slowing the production of the ethylene hormone responsible for its normal ripening.
“Many of our avocados have been rotting in the farms or as they awaited being exported and that is terrible for our exports. Everyday we are trying to devise new ways and strategies of ensuring that we come up with varieties that will stay a bit longer and thus increase our exports,” says Mr Kori Njuguna, a fruit research coordinator at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).
For farmers such as Karanja, once tied to painfully low prices for his coffee berries from the local factory and part-time quarry work, the fruit has already transformed his fortunes. But as research and replanting continues, the sector’s now growing number of processors and exporters claim Kenya has the opportunity to gain far more yet from the world’s blossoming avocado market.