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To sell or not to sell?: The battle over muguka seedlings

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For muguka growers in Embu County, Christmas usually comes late. This is because the often hot and dry January to March months bring good tidings with the price of the stimulant climbing to as high as Sh1,200 a kilo.

Despite muguka being as popular as it has ever been– biting economic times have seen many khat users switch to the far cheaper green leaf– Embu’s green gold has lost some of its lustre. 

“One and half years ago, the least we would be selling a kilogram of muguka during this time was Sh700. Now farmers are grateful to fetch Sh400 a kilo. How is it that as our consumer base grows, farmers are increasingly earning less?” asked James Kariuki, a Muguka grower with at least 300 stems in Embu.

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His answer has won him plaudits and scorn in equal measure. 

“A lot of our people realised that they could make far more selling seedlings than the actual crop. Now we have weekly lorryfulls of muguka seedlings going to Lamu and Voi Counties which are some of our main markets. In a couple of years, where exactly do we think our buyers will come from?” 

While the farmgate price of Muguka can dip to as low as Sh50/kg during the wet months, seedlings sell for 45-30 shillings throughout the year. They are easy and cost-effective to propagate, requiring just the slicing off of root segments, placing them in tins filled with fertile soil, watering them adequately, and in three months they’re ready for market.

The demand for the seedlings, especially ‘original/pure muguka’ sourced from Embu County, is high. Sellers don’t have to do much marketing to find eager buyers.

“These days they’re even hawkers selling muguka seedings along the Embu- Nairobi highway. I have a friend in Voi growing seven acres of muguka.”

James rubbished claims that Embu and Mbeere have distinct soils and climates ideally suited to growing the crop. “There is nothing exceptional about our region that makes these trees uniquely suited to it. All the crop requires is warm/hot weather, irrigation, and well-drained soils. I have visited other growers farming the crop intensively in Tala, Kapenguria, Eldoret, Lodwar, and Kirinyaga– along the Embu border. It grows even better in these areas than on our farms.”

It’s just business

For other muguka farmers, the seedling business is just that, business.

“We’re in a capitalistic society and the horse has already bolted– if I didn’t sell these seedlings someone else would. Besides, Muguka is becoming increasingly popular, especially among young Kenyans with little disposable income. I haven’t seen concrete evidence that selling seedlings is diminishing our market base,” said Michael Murangiri, a young muguka farmer who pivoted to largely selling seedlings.

For other farmers though, this shortsightedness is the death knell of a once booming trade responsible for giving hundreds of thousands dignified livelihoods.

“Our Meru cousins don’t have pickups of Miraa seedlings being ferried weekly to the main Miraa markets. And they at least export the stimulant to Somali– a market which muguka can’t access legally. 

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With muguka, you’ll see someone advertise themselves as a seedling seller today and have a Probox full of them going to Machakos tomorrow,” lamented Charles Njoka– a muguka grower at Kiritiri, Embu County.

James counts himself lucky not to sorely rely on muguka farming as his main source of income. “I ran an electronics shop in Nairobi stocked with Chinese imports. The Chinese don’t sell me phone parts to assemble which could bolster my earnings. What some of us are doing is akin to gleefully teaching a homeowner how to fix a leaking sink. It is only a matter of time before they no longer need us.” 

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