The closure of the Kabazi Canners factory in Subukia area of Nakuru County left farmers in the region a hopeless lot as they grapple with the market for their tomatoes.
The shut-down was shocking to farmers in Subukia, Kabazi, Solai and parts of Bahati, who had for decades known nothing but tomato farming.
Kabazi Canners started operations in 1958, making tomato sauce, puree and paste, which reached the market through the Kenylon brand.
In 1964, the company partnered with Trufoods, the latter offering to distribute Kenylon products alongside its now-iconic Zest- brand jam.
But both companies continued to run their core production operations independently. However, even as Trufoods’ offering grew to include a range of market leading jams, canned vegetables, sauces, tomato paste, peanut butter and drinking chocolate power, Kabazi appeared to stagnate, eventually collapsing in the late 1990s.
“The Kabazi Factory helped a lot of farmers in this area by providing a stable market for their tomatoes. It was disheartening for farmers when it shut down operations,” Peter Kariuki, who now runs a boda boda (motorcycle) in Subukia told Farmbiz Africa.
Luckily, Trufoods took over Kabazi, allowing it to continue operations until 2009, when the factory was once again shut down as Trufoods moved all production to its factory along Jogoo Road, in Nairobi.
“The next step in this process is moving all Trufoods production to a new, state-of-the-art factory as part of the answer to the rising demand for Trufoods products and our quest for unmatched product quality,” says a post on the Trufoods website.
Still, even after the shut-down, farmers in the area have not thought about shifting to other crops, although the market has been crashing before their eyes.
“We grew up with our parents growing tomatoes, and that is all the farming we know,”said Kariuki.
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The tomato market, for farmers, is depressing. A 64Kg crate, is bought at KSh3,500 at the farms, by middlemen, with the prices sometimes going as low as KSh1,500.
“We hear that they sell a crate for up to KSh8,000, but what we can we do-they have the market and we have the produce,” said Kariuki.
The middlemen on their end are not apologetic and say that as long as they run a legitimate business, they are free to fix the prices at levels that will make them earn better.
“I have to fuel my truck and pay people to offload and distribute the crates, and still make a profit. Like with any business, for this to work I have to keep my purchase costs low and sale-price high; That is the law of the market,”a middleman, who only gave the name Kuria, told Farmbiz Africa.
In addition to the oppressive prices, the middlemen only select the biggest and well-shaped tomatoes, leaving farmers to throw away tonnes of unpurchased produce. A visit by Farmbiz Africa around farms in Subukia revealed a tomato glut evidenced by piles of tomatoes, which could easily make tomato sauce, left to rot away on road sides.
But there is hope for farmers in the region following a recent pledge by billionaire Naushad Merali, of the Sameer Group, to set up a canning factory in Kabazi.
In the meantime, what can farmers do to improve their resources?
“Professional dairy farming,” said Kariuki.
The climatic conditions in Subukia allow for all-year around pasture supply and Kariuki confirms that although most farmers in the area have dairy cows, only a handful have made a business out of it.
“Almost every household in Subukia has a cow under a zero-grazing program but most of them are doing it for subsistence only. The few that have found a market in Nakuru can barely meet the demand there. I think this is an opportunity,” said Kariuki.