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Why cashew nut farmers wallow in sordid poverty

By Nicholas Waitathu
Wednesday, January 27th, 2021
Cashew nut fruits. Photo/Courtesy
In summary

Once the pride of the coast region economy, cashew nut farming is in sorry state, with farmers who depended on the tree crop living in grinding poverty.

Agriculture stakeholders blame the failure of the once thriving sub-sector to liberalisation of the agriculture sector in late 1980s and early 1990s following new conditions by two multilateral economic organisations.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) pushed for the adoption of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) into the economy during the period, leading to liberalisation of the agriculture sector.

Also keeping the industry down over the years are poor regulation, brokers and weak marketing infrastructure.

Farmers have continued to struggle with old orchards, inadequate quality planting materials, prevalence of pests and diseases, inadequate developmental research and poor physical infrastructure. 

Despite all the problems the government is allaying fears of total collapse of the industry, adding that all is not lost as broad strategies are being fast-tracked to restore the crop’s lost glory.

Nuts and Oil Directorate of Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA), says that 28 per cent of the current cashew nut tree population is senile, largely due to effects of the climate change.

Further, a big percentage of the current cashew nut tree population is affected by pests and diseases.

To address the challenge, Anthony Muriithi, AFA Acting director general said the directorate is promoting orchard rehabilitation through appropriate demonstrations and farmer support in all cashew growing areas.

Fatuma Swale and Matano Aligonga are small-scale cashew nut farmers in Simba area of Matuga Constituency in Kwale County.

Both recall the good old days when cashew nut farming was the main economic and development driver in the region. 

“In 1960s and 1970s production was high, we were financially stable, our co-operative societies were economically viable and further the region benefited from high development following adequate circulation of cash,” Swale said.

Successive government, she added, offered support to institutions, provided farm inputs and ensured markets were operating without interference. 

“Co-operative societies were also strong and supporting farmers well,” Swale added at her Simba home. 

But over the years she lamented a combination of factors including external interference, collapse of the co-operative movement, climate change and entry of middlemen has choked the once vibrant industry.

“Today it is very rare to get more than three kilogrammes of cashew nut from a single tree compared to more than 40 years ago when a particular crop could produce close to 100kgs,” she added. 

Poor marketing

Faced with years of poor marketing and unproductive trees, cashew nut farmers have been forced to shift to new opportunities to enable them restore lost economic livelihoods.

Aligonga, 41, said following the gloomy performance of the industry, growers are shifting to other high value crops – cassava, pawpaw and mango farming.

“Hardly, can I harvest substantial nuts to sustain my family. The dwindling production resulting in meagre earnings cannot guarantee sustainable life,” he added.

Aligonga said to ensure they are able to meet financial needs they are diversifying into other crops.

“Currently, we are grappling with poor marketing infrastructure, limited access to appropriate financing and challenges of climate change,” he added.

However, Muriithi said that all is not lost as AFA through Nuts and Oil Crops Directorate has been undertaking several activities to revitalise the sector. 

He said the directorate has been aggressively undertaking product development and value addition and promotion of sustainable cashew production and productivity. 

“In future, the authority in conjunction with value chain players will endeavour to develop and implement a comprehensive cashew nuts revival strategy, undertake research, promote extension services and ensure market linkage with farmers and agro-processors,” added Muriithi.

Owing to sub-sector booming, the government in 1974 established a parastatal – Kenya Cashew Nut Company in Kilifi and supported initiation of co-operative societies in the entire coast region.

Government expanded the membership of the company by selling shares to various players. 

John Safari who was the Managing Director between 1982 and 1987 recalled how farmers then were able to meet their financial obligations and contributed to the development of the region. 

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