Kwale — Kenya's ailing cashew sector, which provides a livelihood of sorts to 60,000 farmers, is set for a boost.
Under a project involving the government, research scientists, processors and producers, aging trees will be replaced, farmers educated, credit made more available and market access improved.
The Nut Processors Association of Kenya projects cashew output could quadruple from the current 10,000 tons a year by 2015.
Partners in the initiative include the Ministry of Agriculture, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, the Africa Cashew Alliance and the Cashew Growers Association.
The scheme involves distributing 180,000 seedlings every year for the next five years, training producers to better manage their harvested nuts, and forming farmers' associations to facilitate better access to credit for inputs.
"Thirty years ago, cashew farmers had money because the business then was very lucrative," Harold Mwamburi, told IRIN at his 56-tree orchard in Coast Province, where cashews constitute the leading cash crop.
The sector's contribution to Kenya's GDP has shrunk from four percent in the early 1980s to one percent today. In 1992, production was worth more than $35 million; in 2010 it was less than $3 million.
"Cashew nut farmers are now some of the poorest people here in Coast Province, unable to even buy enough food for their families. The government forgot about cashew farmers for a long time," Mwamburi said.
He explained that many farmers had no direct access to processing plants or competitive markets, and, as result, sold their harvests to middlemen for around half the market price of 68 Kenyan shillings (US$0.8) per kilo.
"They pay very little because they know as a farmer you are desperate," he said.
Farmers say they were dealt a further blow in 2009 when the government banned the export of raw nuts, a move purportedly aimed at boosting domestic processing, value addition and job creation.
Farmers complained that the ban limited their access to market and that the National Cereals and Produce Board was never given the planned funds needed to buy directly from farmers and cut out the unscrupulous middlemen.
Some farmers have begun to chop down the trees. "[Farmers] are abandoning cashew farming because we are being taken for a ride. [The] trees in my farm that only give shade and no money," Peter Mwashigodi, a farmer in Kwale District, told IRIN.
Mwashigodi gave a cautious welcome to the new push by the government to revitalize the sector. "If it will make us better economically than we are now, then it is a good thing, because it is what we have always wanted."
Speaking to IRIN about the initiative, Romano Kiome, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, said, "We want to ensure farmers produce quality nuts and get value for farming cashews as a cash crop through improved linkage to markets."
"By forming associations, farmers will be able to bargain for better prices for what they produce," Charles Muigai, head of the Nut Processor Association of Kenya, said.
"We are training farmers on how to properly manage the crops to improve yields and also ensure they meet international market standards. We strive to improve the quality of the seedlings as well," William Mwinga, a technical officer at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, told IRIN.
"Cashew is one crop that needs very little attention because it is just a tree. All it needs is weeding and spraying against disease and with good rains, [and] it can give very good yields," he said.
While a well-tended cashew tree can yield 30kg per harvest, age and poor management means many Kenyan trees only produce 5kg.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]