2 August 2002

Producing with an eye on European markets

It may cost £1.75/kg to

air freight veg and flowers

from Kenya to the UK, but

low labour costs still make

it profitable, as Lincs farmer

Nicholas Watts found

when he went there

THERE arent many places in the world where you can drink local tea and coffee, but Kenya is one of them. This African nation has every climate in the world and can grow a very wide range of crops. Add in the cheapness of labour and the reliability of the weather, and you have an ideal place to grow and export high-value crops.

There are three types of farm in Kenya – the family farm, which could be run by a European, Asian or African; farms owned by European-based businesses which moved to Kenya specifically to send produce back to Europe; and farms set up to launder money obtained by other means…

High value crops that need a lot of hand work can be sent to Europe at very competitive rates, even taking the £1.75/kg cost of air freight into account. Flowers are a key revenue earner. Despite the favourable climate, they are often still grown under polythene. This allows the climate to be controlled and stops most of the insects and diseases getting to the crop. It also stops heavy rain washing the nutrients out of the soil.

Roses are the most common flower crop. Their acreage in Kenya has increased sharply in the last 10 years and the UK now gets more roses from Kenya and Zimbabwe than we do from Equador and Columbia.

The rose bushes last for six or seven years and trickle irrigation is used to provide water and nutrients. Different colour roses are grown for different European countries and the plants are manipulated to bloom in time for the key dates of Valentines day, mothers day and Easter.

There are two ways of selling flowers, direct or via the clock auction. From the clock auction they are distributed around northern Europe by Dutch merchants. These merchants were originally rose growers who found they could buy them cheaper from the auction than they could grow them. So they now trade in them.

I also visited Africans who were growing for the home market. These market gardeners have a maximum of 8ha (20 acres) and use no sprays apart from the occasional insecticide.

No tractors

Every farm had some livestock. These were kept in stalls or yards and fed the waste vegetables from the field. Any cows would be milked and the milk sold, while the dung was spread on the fields (no artificial manure was used). There were no tractors, nor horses or donkeys, to pull implements, so it was all hard work! On average these farms were employing one person on each acre and paying them about £2/day.

The crops they are growing varied according to the altitude. At 6000ft, spinach, calebrese, kale, cauliflowers, onions, French beans, coriander, tomatoes and potatoes were the main crops. One farmer said he could grow three crops of potatoes a year. Each crop is in the ground for less than four months, so eelworm cannot complete its cycle and is not a problem. Blight was a bigger problem at 6000 ft and so potatoes were not one of the main crops. By the time you reach 8000ft potatoes are an important crop. Cabbages, kale, carrots and rhubarb were also grown.

Unless the produce was sold locally, these smaller farmers would send it to the local wholesale market, Nairobi being the biggest. The packaging of the produce was something else! Potatoes were packed in 150kg bags. However when a full 150kg was put in, the bag was practically overflowing. So sisal string was then criss-crossed across the top to form a net so that the potatoes were readily visible.

There were no fork lifts, just three men who loaded the bags onto lorries. Carrots were packed in the same way but in 100kg bags.

End-to-end

Kale leaves, a popular vegetable in Kenya, were also pressed into 150kg bags. However, two bags were then sewn end-to-end so that the leaves were not visible. Avocado pears were also packed in similar bags.

Prices were surprisingly high. Potatoes fetched £140/t off the field (there was never any need to store any) and washed carrots got £130/t, yet shops charge 30p/kg for carrots and potatoes.

In the UK, the average person earns £50/day and pays 25p/lb for potatoes, but in Kenya the average person earns £3/day and pays 12p/lb for core vegetables – and the farmers are actually getting more for their produce than UK growers.

The average agricultural worker cannot afford to buy vegetables because they only earn £2/day but they dont need too buy them because they all have their own kitchen garden.

Left: Despite the good climate, flower crops are grown under cover to allow climate to be controlled and pests and diseases excluded.

Above and right: Carrots and potatoes are packed into 150kg bags, with sisal string criss-crossed across the top to form a net through which the produce can be seen.