FEATURE-Swimming in tomatoes and bananas, Kenyan farmers count cost of COVID

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KARIKO, Kenya, Sept 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In a change from the droughts and floods that often plague his tomato plantation in central Kenya, David Kariuki’s latest harvest has been more bountiful than he could have hoped – and yet, he is not sure he can afford his children’s school fees.

A stretch of favourable weather has led to a bumper crop for Kariuki, 34, and other farmers in Kirinyaga County, whose numbers have swelled as workers made jobless by the coronavirus pandemic turned to farming to make ends meet.

With the market flush with fresh produce, buyers are offering only a fraction of the usual price, if they are buying at all.

“I have always relied on farming horticultural produce to pay for educating my children,” said Kariuki, strolling through his small farm in Kariko village, picking tomatoes to take home.

“But I can’t see myself breaking even this year. We have an abundance of produce and now we have no or very low market,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Farmers in Kirinyaga County say they are stuck with more produce than they can sell, as early rains and the financial pain of COVID-19 prompt more people to take to the fields.

This year’s ample rainfall has also financially hit farmers who irrigate their crops instead of relying on the rain, said Gachara Gikungu, a consultant with Kilimo Biashara Promoters, which provides agricultural extension services.

Usually, those farmers count on selling their produce during dry spells without competition from rain-fed farms, but with the early rains they have lost that advantage, he explained.

And the impact of the pandemic means Kenyans also have less money to spend on fresh fruit and vegetables, Gikungu noted.

“With many now lacking purchasing power, the demand for some commodities remains low,” he said.

Kariuki said in previous years he could sell a 100-kg (220-pound) box of tomatoes for up to 8,000 Kenyan shillings ($74) – now he can only get a quarter of that. He fears he could lose more than 300,000 shillings by the end of the season.

“I have been growing tomatoes for the last six years, and I have not experienced such a crisis,” he said.

TEACHER TURNED FARMER

Kirinyaga County is generally one of Kenya’s wettest counties, with one long rainy season from March to May and a shorter one between October and December.

But in recent years, weather patterns in the region have been inconsistent, swinging between droughts and heavy rains, say local climate experts.

This year, the rainy season started in February, allowing farmers who heeded the advice of agriculture officials to plant crops early or squeeze in an extra crop before they would normally start their planting.

Then the pandemic struck, pushing unemployed Kenyans to leave cities and go back to their villages to take up farming, which further boosted productivity, said farmer Kariuki.

There are no reliable estimates of how many people have entered the farming industry since coronavirus hit in March.

But before the pandemic, about 70% of Kenya’s rural population was already working in agriculture, according to consultant Gikungu.

Ruth Wangari, 28, a private primary-school teacher in Kirinyaga County, started farming in May when it became clear that schools would not reopen any time soon.

With her small savings, she planted a quarter-acre of land with tomatoes, French beans and kale, guided by more experienced farmers. Today she has an ample harvest, but not enough money to get by.

“I had hoped to at least make it in farming, but now, I have no market and the few buyers coming my way are offering far too low prices. I am torn between selling (the produce) and seeing it rot,” Wangari said.

BANANAS GOING BAD

As the government deals with the pandemic’s economic impact and major flooding in parts of the country, there is currently no aid planned for farmers struggling with surplus produce, said Peter Ndambiri, deputy governor of Kirinyaga County.

Co-operation between counties could offer a solution by expanding markets for local produce, he suggested.

Fleciah Kinyua, a banana farmer in the Mukinduri region of Kirinyaga County, said she was resigned to losing money on the massive amounts of fruit she is growing.

Kinyua, who chairs the Karinga Tissue Culture Banana Growers group, said in the last few years its more than 100 farmers had produced between four and five tonnes on average per harvest.

But this season, their output has nearly doubled – and due to a glut on the market, the price they can demand has dropped by nearly half.

“We have no choice but to sell at the prevailing price,” she said. “If we don’t, we will have much produce going bad at the farm.” ($1 = 108.3500 Kenyan shillings) (Reporting by Caroline Wambui; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org/climate)

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