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Predict the weather, make tomato fortunes

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Long-range weather forecasts may offer a route to millions in profits for farmers, based on this year’s experiences with tomatoes. For the one certainty about tomato prices for Kenyan farmers has been that there is no certainty. Prices can swing from barely Sh15 a kilo to over Sh100 a kilo from season to season and even across seasons. However, this year has been a year of record highs, with prices still holding at Sh70-Sh80 a kilo in April, and the cause ahs been the weather.

Patrick Kirimi, a farmer in Kaaga Meru county and horticulturalist for over 20 years, recalls a time between 1991 and 1997 when it was hard to find anyone who would buy a kilogram of tomatoes for even Sh5. Despite being only walking distance from Meru town, he and other local farmers often made compost of their unsold, rotting fruit.

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But as the new century opened, the population kept rising – as did production costs – and the tomato slowly rose as a cash cow, finally reaching a peak in prices in February 2020 that even spawned rich tomato farmer memes as the farm-gate price reached Sh150 a kilo.

It was a height that caught most farmers unawares, with many having anticipated the usual drop in tomato prices through the normally sunny months of January and February. Some hadn’t even bothered to plant the crop, given the normally flooded market at that time of year, when prices often plummet as low as Sh15 a kilo – which makes it nearly impossible for farmers to break even on their production costs.

Instead, prices soared, through all the rain, and vegetable traders had to go as far as Ethiopia to source cheaper tomatoes.

For a kilogram of tomatoes a farmer can now fetch Sh70 – Sh80. But from the experience he’s amassed in his two decades in farming, more than anything else, Mr Kirimi explains, the seesaw nature of tomato prices is a function of weather patterns.

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The down seasons for tomato prices are normally January and February and August to November. The other months of the year are characterised by regular rains that are highly disruptive to tomato growth. It is hard to stand the tomatoes on sticks in the open field during heavy downpours, but this is essential, as ripening fruits need be kept off the ground to prevent it from rotting.

Tomato prices also vary from one region to another. Currently the price of a 64kg box ranges from Sh7,680 in Malindi to Sh6000 in Nairobi, Sh5500 in Mombasa and Sh5000 in Garissa.

Though greenhouse farming has been adapted by many farmers it remains a relatively high barrier to entry, requiring investment costs that many small-scale farmers cannot reach, meaning they prefer to cultivate tomatoes only in the ‘safer months’. Those who cultivate through open field planting usually do not produce optimally over the rainy seasons. But this spread of farming and timing means that there is a surge in the quantities supplied over the drier months.

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The other seasonal norm for tomato farmers is a price surge in December as the prices of most consumables increase due to the Christmas festivities.

However, a widespread outbreak of disease can completely disrupt the usual supply of tomatoes to market, at any time of year. Mr Kirimi remembers the Tuta absoluta outbreak of 2017, which had a very pronounced impact. A highly virulent moth pest whose larvae burrow into the leaves and fruit of tomatoes, it proved a real menace for farmers to contain, and left many having to root out their entire fields.

In the long run, Mr Kirimi insists that tomatoes remain a lucrative venture. Though he’s suffered some losses, he’s made up for them in subsequent seasons. He runs proper bookkeeping to track his gains and losses and manages some savings to sustain his enterprise over poorer months in a long-term approach.

But the real key to getting the most from the crop lies in understanding the long-term weather view. With expected continued rains over the coming months, most farmers believe tomato prices will steady, or rise again in 2020. But the passage from here will depend on getting tomatoes to buyers in the lockdowns on coronavirus, as well as on how much it now rains.


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