A clement climate at high altitudes and an entrepreneurial spirit are giving Kenyans a fruitful future.

Why avocados are driving another sort of green economy in Kenya

Mr Chelugui may be behind the times. According to the latest estimate of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (fao), Kenya reached number three in exports last year. It is still far behind Mexico, the unchallenged giant, and Peru, the runner-up. But the volume of Kenya’s exports shot up last year by 24%, the steepest climb of any big producer.

Kenya is lucky in climate and location. Avocados grow best at altitudes of around 1,500-2,100 metres above the sea. Kenya also scores well in sustainability. Thanks to its heavy rainfall in the highlands (1,000 millimetres a year in some orchards), no extra water is needed, except in the dry season, which lasts around four months. Most farms use less than 100 litres to grow a kilogram of pears, far below the world average. The equatorial sunlight, unchanging through the year, is also beneficial, so “the pears can grow by day and go to sleep at night”, as a jovial bigwig puts it at Sunripe, a leading Kenyan avocado exporter.

Kenya is also well placed as seasons go: it can send its avocados onto the global market before many of its rivals’ pears have ripened. With two rainy seasons in some areas, luckier orchards have a double harvest, stretching the period when Kenya can sell the fruit. And its entrepreneurial smallholders are catching on fast. A well-tended avocado tree can bear a decent crop within a few years.

The modest wages of farm workers, whose official minimum is around $57 a month against $280 in Peru, is another plus, though some of Kenya’s bigger growers pay more than $90. You can buy a ripe avocado in a Kenyan rural market for as little as ten Kenyan shillings (about eight American cents). Supermarkets in Britain sell a single pear for the equivalent of about $1-2 depending on global prices, which fluctuate according to the season.

Moreover, demand is growing. Though Americans wolf down 44% of global imports, the European love affair with the avo, which accounts for 27% of the total, looks ardent too, says the fao. Last year Germans ate 10% more than in the year before and Poles 24% more.

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There are snags, though. Mr Chelugui warns that Kenya will rise in the global stakes “only if we maintain global standards relating to crop husbandry, traceability and sustainability, as every fruit exported carries Kenya’s reputation.” Kenya has been accused of sometimes shoving unripe avocados onto the market. Last year the country’s agriculture authority briefly banned exports because some farmers, especially smallholders lacking the technology to keep stored pears at the right temperature or keep their trees correctly watered, were selling immature ones with tastelessly tough flesh to exporters.

Shipping is also a tricky affair. Temperatures need to be carefully maintained and monitored. With the Red Sea out of bounds because of ructions related to the Gaza war, the longer voyage around South Africa adds to the cost and to the risk of the fruit perishing. Even so, a country already on the map for its high share of renewable energy is now also seeing a different sort of green economy thrive.

CREDIT: economist

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