Kenya: Tomato is New Gold as Price Shoots Up

22 February 2020

It has been called the "new apple in town", "red gold" and "bitcoin competitor".

Someone even joked about the "precious" cargo receiving police protection while in transit.

Tomatoes have been the subject of many jokes in the past few weeks as Kenyans continue to pay a fortune for them.

The high prices, which had by last week shot up to between Sh25 and Sh35 in the Coast region, have been blamed on the commodity's shortage nationwide.

Unexpected rains towards the end of last year, which have continued into February, have seen tomato prices rise steadily.

At Wakulima market, one of Nairobi's many farm produce wholesale markets, traders were selling a kilo at Sh150, up from the usual Sh70 to Sh80, even as they said this was a drop from the previous week's price of Sh200.

FAMILIES GET CREATIVE

A retailer who only identified herself as Bennett was buying some for her kiosk in Makadara Estate when the Saturday Nation visited the market.

She said she would sell each tomato at Sh30. Nanjira Kakande, a resident of Mombasa, said she had stopped buying them altogether.

"Instead of buying a tomato at Sh35, I'd rather buy a quarter of meat and dry-fry it. I'll have to do without the tomato-rich gravy in my food for now," she said.

Isaac Biwott, a resident of Pangani, Nairobi, said his family had switched to tomato sauce and tomato paste to flavour their food.

"It doesn't make sense to use two tomatoes to cook your meal when a sachet of tomato sauce that can make three meals is going for Sh40. For now this is how we'll be flavouring our meals."

Besides the jokes, the shortage has also touched off criticism. Abraham Otieno, a resident of Gachie, could not believe his ears when his usual grocer told him he had to pay Sh25 for one tomato, and does not think there is any humour in the situation.

BAD ECONOMY

In fact, he thinks the tomato crisis is a sign of a faltering economy and points to economic and agricultural mismanagement.

"Kenya has never seen one tomato, however big, costing Sh25 or Sh30. Weren't there bad seasons in the past? Weren't there prolonged rains? Whatever it is, this is about a bad economy," he said.

Agriculture, the country's backbone, has been neglected for years, making it underperform.

Dan Njogu, a tomato supplier at Wakulima market, said bad roads leading to farms upcountry are one of the reasons causing the problem.

"The rains that fell in January and February found the tomatoes mature yet tomatoes do not 'like' rain. The farmers tried to harvest them quickly to avoid losses, but then we could not get to the farms fast enough before they started rotting because vehicles were getting stuck on muddy roads," Mr Njogu said.

But Mr Njogu now has another problem on his hands: tomatoes coming in their truckloads from Ethiopia.

"Kenyans will soon get relief. Their tomatoes aren't as good, but we will have to do with these until local production normalises. In fact, we're in the initial stages of a glut because of the Ethiopian tomatoes, which have started forcing us to drop prices," he added.

'HARMFUL' RAIN

Anne Macharia, an agronomist in Kajiado, which is a major tomato producer in Kenya, explained the problem.

"Last year, the heavy rains affected most of the production. As usual, farmers planted in September targeting the December-January market. But then the heavy rains almost completely destroyed their tomatoes. We have witnessed a high incidence of tomato disease infestation since December, mostly tomato blight," she said.

"Even those who are able to harvest a bit of their crops are getting diseased tomatoes that end up rotting if they don't get to the market fast," she explained further.

The Kenya Meteorological Department has said that sporadic rains will continue until the long rains come. If this happens, Ms Macharia warns that the ongoing shortage will persist.

Most places including Kajiado have experienced shorter than normal breaks, with the last two months being generally wet.

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