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Kenyan avocado exports rests on adherence to quality standards

Post by : Robert Kamau

A woman in kakuzi plc Avocado processing plant.

The most topical agricultural buzzword around is increasingly becoming the value of avocado farming in Kenya.

Rightly so, we are seeing an upsurge in the number of farmers planting avocado trees in the desire to improve their incomes. However, the critical question which needs to be asked is; are we as Kenya and Kenyan farmers exploiting our true market potential for avocados?

Avocado production is not new to Kenya, in fact the first commercial plantings were established many decades ago.

A woman in kakuzi plc Avocado  processing plant.
A woman in kakuzi plc Avocado processing plant.

More recently various large-scale players are becoming involved however, in the last five years, there has been a significant increase in the production of Hass avocados from smallholder farmers which together with production from larger farms has made Kenya’s volumes grow significantly, positioning us as the 8th largest exporter in the world.

But what does that mean in the global avocado market?

We may be the 8th largest exporter in the world but in comparison to worldwide producers this is still very small.

Also bear in mind that there are major producing countries who actually don’t export or only export a smaller amount as the product is so popular domestically, for example the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

Just to put this in perspective Kenya exports annually around 70,000 tonnes of Hass and Green Skin varieties.  Mexico the world’s largest producer grows 2,500,000 tonnes of Hass alone.

We need to take stock of the production levels from the countries Kenya competes with in our marketing window.  Just as an example from last year, in a peak week Peru exported to Europe 657 shipping containers of Hass.  In the same week, South Africa exported 74 containers and Kenya exported 37.

What should we be doing to make consumers buy Kenyan fruits rather than Peruvian or South African?  For most products to improve demand you have to ensure that the consumer has an excellent experience when they consume Kenyan fruit.

Making sure that only the correct quality fruit reaches the market is essential but must also be matched with other key aspects which I will discuss later.

As Kenyan and worldwide production levels increase, we need to grow Kenyan’s market access.  Reports indicate that by 2030 half of the worlds fresh produce will be consumed in Asia.  Access for conventional fruits into these markets is essential.

So what makes someone want to buy Kenyan fruit? 

This is the crucial question, and the answer lies in our Quality, Traceability and Sustainability protocols.

The world’s consumers are demanding more of us as farmers, perhaps without necessarily respecting that commodity prices must also be sustainable.  That perhaps is a different argument, but we need to sell our fruit at the end of the day.

The market is measuring us on pesticide residues, water sustainability, soil preservation, ‘food miles’ and numerous other indices.  We have to be able to demonstrate compliance for arguably two reasons.

Firstly, simple economics. Some markets will not emphasise this, but then we are limiting competition for our fruit. Does that make sense?

Secondly and perhaps more importantly.

It’s the right thing to do; we do have a responsibility to our future generations.  This responsibility is to leave them the soil, water, and environment in better shape than we found it and have developed their economic sustainability through a thriving avocado industry built on Quality, Traceability and Sustainability.

Customer requirements for quality may seem easy yet so stringent and unforgiving. No consumer in the local or even global market wants to buy fruit that never ripens or cuts into one and finds it rotten inside.

To deliver quality products to the market, we must ensure proper crop husbandry included fertiliser and related inputs, application at the right stage. Harvesting, too, must be at the correct maturity level, and the correct post-harvest and cold chain management protocols adhered to the letter.

Sounds simple right?  Like all things, it never is. If we are to do this better, we must invest further in our extension services, training, technology transfer, and strengthening our regulatory authorities.

The markets also don’t help us. A shortage of avocados in Europe will send agents clamouring for their phones, demanding “any available” fruit. In the hope of making a quick buck, brokers dash to farmer’s fields to harvest anything that looks like an avocado, regardless of whether it is mature or not.

Some money may be made but at what cost?  The answer is our nations reputation.  Unfortunately, the reputation of Kenya for avocados is not good.  If demand for our fruit will grow to match the increased production levels, we have to improve our reputation as a quality producer.

Failing to do that could mean that Kenya remains the cheap last resort when nothing else is available.  A market space that others will quickly take from us.

The second part is traceability. What does this mean?  In a nutshell, the ability to trace the fruit from ‘field to fork’.  We must trace a carton of fruit back to the grower who produced it and, more importantly, have confidence that the grower produced it in the agreed and prescribed manner.  This not only covers food safety but also covers social accreditation standards and the contentious area of phytosanitary requirements.

So how do we achieve traceability?  One answer is developing organised and well-managed farmer groups comprising all avocado farmers within a specific and reasonably localised area.  We should, however, ensure that whilst farmers are provided with skills to grow the crop correctly through these groups, the payments made should be to each farmer directly from the exporter, not through an intermediary.

Creating and strengthening farmer groups is key, as is access to our farmers’ correct agrochemicals and training on using these and compliance with sensible, strict and uniformly applied standards.  Who is going to do this?

Exporters must play their part in this journey and our development partners as ultimately building the quality reputation of Kenya is good for the Nation and good for business.

We can’t just be advising framers to grow more fruit if we don’t have a clear strategy for where and to whom we are going to sell the product, and without traceability, the markets become limited.

The final part of the story, but by no means the least, is sustainability.  As a country, we are acutely aware of climate change; we live with its effects daily, not just in our agricultural sector but also in the havoc it plays on our homes, roads, and sanitation.

But is sustainability all about climate change? Perhaps ultimately, it all comes down to the same thing, protecting our planet for future generations and thus, indirectly, how we grow our fruit is essential.

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