In Summary
  • The fluctuating prices of dry flowers have seen many farmers shy away from the venture as they feel the processors are exploiting them.
  • The sector is run without a board of management at the Pyrethrum Processing Company of Kenya reducing it to a one-man show.
  • The Pyrethrum Growers Association wants the National Treasury to allocate funds to all 18 pyrethrum growing counties to boost production and attract more processors.

When pyrethrum farming was still a lucrative business, blooming flowers painted a magnificent picture of snow-canopied farms, and the money it put in farmers’ pockets earned it the moniker “white gold”.

Grown nearly entirely by small-scale farmers across 18 counties, perhaps no other cash crop was more widespread, and whose long drawn-out and painful death came with devastating consequences to rural economies.

And no other crop has so stubbornly refused to flourish despite repeated efforts to resuscitate it.

Kenya was once the leading producer of pyrethrum in the world. At its peak in the 1980s and 90s, it produced more than 12,000 tonnes per year, providing 70 per cent of the global supply which earned the country more than Sh4 billion in the time’s exchange rate.

This huge dominance then translated into wealth for more than 200,000 farmers in Nakuru, Nyandarua, Narok, West Pokot, Nyeri, Kisii, Embu, Meru, Kiambu, Murang'a, Uasin Gishu, Laikipia, Nyamira, Bomet, Kericho, Bungoma, Elgeyo Marakwet and Baringo counties.

ALTERNATIVES

Then neglect and plunder of the sub-sector set in and production took a nose-dive.

Today, only about 30,000 farmers are cultivating the crop, producing a paltry 350 tonnes yearly. Earnings have declined to about Sh200 million per year.

The sector is reeling under myriad problems as impoverished farmers watch haplessly.

The frustrated farmers have abandoned the crop, replacing it with potatoes, horticulture and dairy; while others have left their plots to lay fallow over an uncertain future.

Even as a committee tasked with the rival of the crop got down to work in Nakuru this week, the problem appears simple: as in other crops, lack of quality seeds and the death of extension service is wreaking havoc.

“In the golden days, we used to receive quality seeds, but for many years I have not seen a single extension officer visiting my farm to check on the progress or address any challenges I am facing,” Wahu Kimathi, a former grower at Kiambogo in Gilgil, told Nation during a tour of the area.

The fluctuating prices of dry flowers have seen many farmers shy away from the venture as they feel the processors are exploiting them.

MANAGEMENT

Yet it was not always like this. For 90 years, smallholder farmers who grew the crop on quarter-acre plots were the backbone of the industry.

But the plight of the farmers has largely been ignored by the subsequent regimes which have underfunded the sector as mismanagement and looting continued unabated.

Farmers who used to make a beeline to the now-moribund Nakuru factory to deliver their flowers have disappeared.

Today, the country produces a mere 50 metric tonnes per month yet Tanzania, which was nowhere on the pyrethrum global map, is now producing 300 metric tonnes per month.

The sector is run without a board of management at the Pyrethrum Processing Company of Kenya (PPCK) reducing it to a one-man show.

Corruption at PPCK over the years has been a major hindrance to the revival of the cash crop.

A recent Auditor-General report for 2017-2018 indicates that PPCK paid Sh20 million to casuals for work not done, reflecting how far the sector has fallen from its glory days.

Poor quality clones and varieties is another of the challenges facing the sector that has potential to create thousands of jobs and boost the government’s Big Four Agenda on manufacturing.

SEED QUALITY

Delayed collection of dry flowers and payment by some of the processors has made it difficult to convince unhappy farmers to increase acreage.

But the biggest challenge is lack of clean planting material resulting in poor germination rate.

John Waweru, a farmer in Molo, once the capital of pyrethrum farming in Kenya, puts the germination rate at 50 per cent.

“PPCK is supposed to be the custodian of high quality planting material. It isn’t.”

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