A burgeoning European appetite for basil, a versatile aromatic herb in the mint family, has opened a window of opportunity for farmers in Nakuru county who are now earning up to Sh200, 000 a month in exports.
Working with Premier Seeds Limited, a vegetable seed company, the farmers, who have traditionally relied on the overcrowded cereal farming, have now found a lifeline in a perennial herb whose multiple health and nutritional benefits has made it a hit internationally. International buyers say East Africa meets a paltry 15 per cent of their supply for the herb even as demand balloons following discovery of new uses of the herb.
“The markets have expressed insatiable appetite for the herb. With our first farmers, we are producing 1.6 tonnes of basil against a demand six tonnes per month from the importer we work with. The onus is on us to sell us more, the markets keep telling us,” said Simon Andys the founder of Premier Seeds.
A health-conscious middle class is driving the growth of culinary herbs and spices in the international markets which has been on a meteoric rise and currently stands at $2.3 billion (Sh234 billion) according to data from the International Trade Centre. Key markets include the EU which in 2013 imported 302,000 tonnes of spices and herbs from developing countries like Kenya worth €1 billion (Sh114 billion).
To get maximum output and international standards, the herb is grown in greenhouses. And to assist farmers who might not meet the cost of constructing the greenhouses, Premier Seeds has entered into a financing agreement with financial institutions allowing farmers to own greenhouses.
Nakuru farmers making an initial foray into horticulture have embraced the herb for its ease of cultivation and growth traits. A bushy, annual plant, it takes on average 42 days to mature and produces light green silky leaves which tastes somewhat like cloves with a strong pungent and sweet scent