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Save pyrethrum sector from imminent collapse

The collapse of the Sh13 billion pyrethrum sector—estimated to have been injecting close to Sh2 billion annually to the economy—hurt not only the national economy but also the economic lifeline for thousands of Kenyans. Its death was catalysed by the introduction of synthetic or man-made versions of pyrethrins.

In the last two decades numerous efforts to revive the sector have suffered a false-start and caused more desperation among farmers and millions of shillings gone down the drain. That is why any talk of reviving the sector from imminent collapse and restore its former glory will always be welcome news.

With the potential to produce and process upwards of 20,000 tonnes of pyrethrum, earning farmers up to Sh8 billion per year and Sh6 billion in foreign exchange from refined extracts, failure is not an option.

For a country in dire need of foreign exchange and job creation, revival of the sector is a godsend, that will not only give thousands of farmers a dignified source of income, but also earn billions of shillings in foreign exchange from a crop still in high demand globally.

Having been the dominant producer of pyrethrum in the global market for 60 years until 2003, the value chain is in intensive care unit. Therefore, the question of where the rain started beating us isn’t even an issue.

Rather, why has the downward spiral of the lucrative crop continued unabated despite government willingness to pump billions of shillings for its turnaround?

It is baffling that while at one point Kenya controlled a massive 90 per cent of the world market, this has gone down to a measly two per cent, having been overtaken by neighbouring Tanzania and Rwanda. Although Kenya still produces the best quality pyrethrum in the world, the sector has been bedevilled by many problems that have been blamed for its decline.

Several shortcomings contributed to the collapse of the sector, including failure by the then Pyrethrum Board of Kenya (PBK) to pay farmers for deliveries, crop diseases, lack of investment in high quality planting materials, poor farming methods and crop research and the reliance on one processor, PBK.

But recent reports of cartels hiving off property and land belonging to the government must be stopped to grant farmers another chance to earn from the crop. Reports that the Pyrethrum Processing Company Kenya (PPCK)—which took over after changing names from PBK—leased out over 50 acres of the company’s staff quarters land for up to 20 years has raised eyebrows on the intent of management amid dwindling hopes of revival.

With the encroachment of land used to produce and house workers, the possibility of the sector collapsing are real unless quick intervention is made. Already, a lot of water has gone under the bridge and burying heads in the sand only makes it worse for the more than 200,000 subsistence and low-income farmers whose dreams revolve around the revival of the sector.

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