Smallholder avocado farmers in Mt Kenya are staring at uncertain times after UK superstore, Tesco, cut off links with Kakuzi Limited, which has contracted at least 3,000 out growers.
Tesco, one of the United Kingdom’s largest supermarket stores, has stopped business with the Kenyan avocado exporter based in Murang’a County, over claims of human rights abuse filed in court.
Kakuzi has been sued by 79 former employees.
Esther Nyambura, an avocado farmer, is now apprehensive that the prices of the fruits will dip following the closure of the market.
This comes at a time many counties in Central region have been popularizing growing of the oily fruit with an eye on the recently opened lucrative Chinese market.
“In the past 20 years I have partnered with Kakuzi. I have gained much through the timely payment for my produce,” says Nyambura.
The harvesting season is between March and August, with farmers dealing directly with the company and earning thousands of shillings for deliveries.
Most of the 3,000 Kakuzi out growers establish partnerships with other smaller farmers from whom they buy at slightly lower prices. The smallholder farmers are not able to deliver on their own to Kakuzi’s Packhouse in Makuyu town.
On average, according to the out growers, one of them handles produce for about 100 other farmers, meaning that as many as 300,000 producers could be affected by the turn of events.
Kakuzi, a subsidiary of UK’s Camelia PLC, also supplies avocados to other superstores, including Sainsburys and Lidl, which are expected to follow in the footsteps of Tesco.
Yesterday, Patrick Kamande Kabue, a farmer and Kakuzi out grower, said they were staring at a possible loss of a lucrative market – the UK – and a sharp plunge in prices.
Kakuzi offers suppliers at least Sh35 per fruit compared to between Sh8 and Sh15 offered by other buyers and brokers, and a generous second payment on cumulative season supplies when the market gets juicy.
The fruits the out growers in Murang’a, Nyeri, Kirinyaga and Kiambu sell to Kakuzi are then branded and exported after grading and packaging at Makuyu.
But the company also has significant production from its 42,000-acre plantation in Makuyu, which also produces treated poles and wood, coffee, macadamia and beef.
Last year, Kakuzi Limited sold 7,600 tonnes of avocado to the UK outlets. Although the produce from Kenya is not as significant in quantity as that from South Africa and South America, it is known for its flavour since it is grown in the highlands.
Kamande, who chairs Murang’a County Avocado Farmers Forum, said a significant impact is expected if Kakuzi leaves the purchasing stable since it has been the largest buyer of the fruit in Murang’a, Nyeri, Kiambu and Kirinyaga.
It also buys from farmers in Machakos, Kitui and Makueni counties.
Jackson Mburu, a Kakuzi out grower from Makuyu, said he makes an average Sh3 million annually from the sale of the fruits.
“My humble appeal is that the Kenyan government steps in and help establish the truth in those allegations,” said Mburu, who has partnered with Kakuzi for 13 years.
Although the company has had long standing disputes with the community, including allegations of blocking use of public roads cutting through its sprawling estate and ruthlessly clamping down on fruit thieves, yesterday it presented the face of a victim in the legal matter.
Corporate Manager Wilson Odiyo said the firm was likely to lose the international market due to what he termed “falsehoods levelled against it”.
“If there are issues behind our back they should be brought to the limelight. The company has a dispute resolution mechanism,” said Odiyo.