Governor Mwangi Wa Iria of Murang’a county, in a stroke of prescient genius, initiated and implemented an idea that in retrospect seems blindingly obvious: avocados.
Arguably Kenya’s national fruit, every homestead and household in the county is helped and encouraged to grow at least four Hass avocado trees.
As a result – and in addition to the happy corollary of a greener country – the county now produces over 300 million avocados annually (as indicated in its website). And with plans afoot to grow even more trees, production will double to 600 million avocados annually in a couple of years.
Such numbers could lead to market saturation, if the focus remained on just producing and selling of the succulent fruit. This oversupply could then precipitate price drops, wastage, and even abandonment of the crop.
Of course, the county could more aggressively explore foreign markets, and at an export price of Sh10 per fruit, its farmers could earn revenue of more than Sh3 billion per annum.
While this kind of return from a single, well managed crop seems quite staggering, it is worth noting that a single Hass avocado readily fetches $2(Sh200) in foreign markets. This means that by selling their avocado for Sh10 per fruit, Murang’a farmers would only be achieving 5 per cent of the true value of their crop.
The question then is, why doesn’t the county, through its resources and investors engage in agro-processing, extracting extra value from avocados by processing them into such products as avocado oil, guacamole, canned avocado, healthcare and cosmetic products among others for the local and export markets and achieve maximum value?
The answer is simple. On the surface, agriculture and industry should go hand in hand, with one feeding the other in an ever-growing cycle of productivity.
However, while agriculture remains the economy’s mainstay and main job creator, Kenyan industry isn’t keeping up. It seems Kenyans have not taken manufacturing seriously, instead preferring to import finished produce and export raw commodities.
Take the following examples. Only 16 per cent of Kenya’s exported agricultural output is processed, even though doubling this would create 110,000 new jobs and earn the economy an additional $600 million (Sh60 billion).
Only 30 out of the 8,600 fishing vessels in the East African Indian Ocean process their fish in Kenya, yet a proper such industry could put 12,000 people to work whilst earning Kenya $150 million(Sh15 billion).
Additionally, Kenya accounts for just over 0.4 per cent of the US textile market, even with Agoa, and while this slice of the world’s largest economy is hardly a number to thumb one’s nose at, improved, modernised textile production could easily employ over 105,000 people.
Finally, 90 per cent of Kenya’s leather exports are in unfinished leather. Were the local manufacturing sector more developed, 35,000 jobs would be created, whilst also saving $86 million (Sh8.6 billion) annually in leather shoe imports.
But what does our economic “bible” envision for us? Encouragingly, Kenya’s Vision 2030 recognizes agro-processing as one of the main pathways for Kenya’s journey towards industrialised, middle income economy status by that fabled year. It envisages the setting up of industrial centres to support and add value to Kenya’s famously fecund agricultural output.
It seeks to develop a meat and leather processing cluster in Garissa and Kajiado. Kisumu is to be a bustling fish processing and packaging centre, while Mombasa is marked as a food hub, the centre of an agro-industrial cluster that would serve the ever-growing local and regional market. Ostensibly, this is where Murang’a avocados would be processed and added value.
There is, admittedly, the temptation to expect established foreign agro-processing firms set up shop in Kenya and avail themselves of its agricultural riches. After all, isn’t it better to let someone with the requisite expertise and experience replicate their success here?
My view in fact is that, for Vision 2030 to achieve its objectives, Kenyan agro-processing must be spearheaded by Kenyans who understand the industry and the market, and who have the intellectual and financial wherewithal to make it work.
The fact that East Africa imports $3.8 billion (Sh380 billion) per annum in raw and processed commodities should be a wake up call to the existence of an industry so full of potential yet completely ignored.
Governor Wa Iria therefore deserves hearty congratulations for making Murang’a a major producer of avocados, in such short shrift. However, he can ill afford to rest on the proverbial laurels.
It is now incumbent upon Kenya and Kenyans to innovate indigenous, ingenious industries that can process and add value to our abundant agricultural produce and afford Kenyans the quality and variety of processed food and agricultural products enjoyed in the developed economies while also creating millions of jobs for our youth. —The writer is a Principal Secretary