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Pyrethrum exports could plug the revenue hole, but Kenya still wants loans

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Until the
late 1990s Pyrethrum farming in Kenya was highly profitable, and by the time
the sector started ailing, the crop had been cultivated in Kenya for close to
60 years and sold to external markets through the Pyrethrum Board of Kenya (PBK),
which was founded in 1928.

At one time,
Kenya was the largest producer of the crop in the world, yielding more than 70
per cent of all cultivated pyrethrum.  

But farmers
moved away from the crop after PBK got inundated with reports of massive
corruption, leading to delayed payments. In 2008, KSh3billion was siphoned from
the Board, and farmers went unpaid for months.

In the same
year, the PBK lost valuable assets including 850 acres of land, which was sold
at KSh33million, although it was valued at KSh1.6b at the time.

Earlier, the
PBK factory in Nakuru had caught fire and extensive damage was reported.
However, the company had taken an insurance policy, which yielded KSh300million
in compensation. A new plant, with modern machines would have cost KSh100m, but
by the time the KSh300m was reported finished, the old machines, which had been
put up for restoration, were not working and the officials were appealing for
Sh150m more to get the job done.

“When we talk
of obsolete equipment, we are talking of people trying to recreate technology that
was in fashion in the 1930s. That technology has a terrible waste.  You lose a lot (sic),” John
Mututho, then Naivasha MP, reported during a parliamentary session assessing a report by the
Departmental Committee on Agriculture, Lands and Natural Resources.

extraction of that active ingredient (pyrethrins) at the pyrethrum factories is
so poorly done that even the waste itself can be used for mosquito control,”
added Mututho, pointing out that unscrupulous workers at the factory were selling
the ‘waste’ to independent candle and incense manufacturers.

Valuable product  

Pyrethrins are natural plant
insecticides, whose
usage started after the Second World War. The powerful
insecticidal ability of the pyrethrins provided an alternative at a time when
there was increasing concern over the use of environmentally-unfriendly chemicals
like DDT.

In the early days, pyrethrum from Kenya as was exported in bales
of dried flowers, with the export rules demanding that the flowers contain a
minimum of 1.3 percent pyrethrins.

Later, PBK started exporting it as an extract containing 25-50
percent pyrethrins. By 1997 production in Kenya is about 10,000 tonnes of dried
flowers per annum, which was 50 percent of the world production. Most of the pyrethrin
extract from Kenya is sold to the USA and Europe.

However, although the market still looks attractive, little
effort has been made in improving the cultivation process of the crop.

A special
assessment study by the Biotechnology Programme of the Dutch Ministry of
Foreign Affairs concluded that “despite high global market demands for natural
pyrethrins, it is very unlikely that production of pyrethrum materials ‘in
vitro’ in greenhouses will be commercialised in the near future as productivity
is low when compared to farm production.”

Sleeping giant

Today, the amount of pyrethrum being produced in Kenya stands at 250 tonnes only, the industry having recorded a 98 percent drop in production in eight years.

Kenya currently produces
less than 2 percent of world pyrethrum. 

Since 2003, the world has suffered an acute shortage of
pyrethrum as a direct consequence of Kenya’s failings in pyrethrum production.  

The island
state of Tasmania, seeing an opportunity in the demise of Kenyan pyrethrum, started commercial growing and processing in 2000. By 2010, the country controlled 65 per cent of
world  pyrethrum production.

Still, even as the Kenyan government fails to take notice, estimates indicate
that pyrethrum farming has the potential to bring in upto KSh10billion annually
from an export market that is obsessed with its pyrethrin extract, an amount that will help the ailing economy, which has in part been damaged by reduced tea and coffee exports.  

Most of the
farmers cultivating it use it on their farms, and do not sell it to the PBK.
Some farmers swear that a mixture of pyrethrum and used
deep-frying oil is effective in killing termites and other insects.

Others confirm that smearing a mixture of pyrethrum powder
and milking salve on animal body parts helps keep away ticks. 

Chances of revival

To get Kenyan farmers interested in the crop again, Justus
Monda, the chairman of the Pyrethrum Growers Association of Kenya, suggests
that a committed effort be made towards giving farmers the needed capital.

“An acre of pyrethrum will cost a farmer KSh35,000 to plant,
with KSh22,000 going to the purchase of seedlings and the rest for  inputs and associated production costs,” said

In addition the pyrethrum growers demand that PBK changes
its name “in order to gain the confidence of farmers.

Further, Monda, and fellow farmers suggest that local
formulators be encouraged to register new pyrethrum products in order to
maximise the local value addition on pyrethrum.

“We suggest that a target of 20 percent of all technical grade pyrethrum
produced by the processors be made available to local formulators in order to
maximise the revenue and job benefits of pyrethrum,” said Monda.

And as all this is happening, encouragement through media campaigns should be implemented in order to get the number of farmers from the current 12,000 to the 220,000 it was in the 1990s.


Important contacts

Pyrethrum Growers Association of Kenya[email protected]

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