Coconut rises as commercial crop in coast

The coconut is emerging as a new leg-up crop, spurned on by the Kenya Coconut Development Authority’s work with 81,000 coastal farmers, which has seen demand for seedlings reach 100,000 during the current rainy season – almost four times the demand last year.

The new rise of the crop represents a turnaround. following the collapse since the 1990s of many of the co-operatives that supported coconut farmers.

Since its formation in 2007, KCDA’s programme has delivered a more than six-fold increase in the number of coconut fruits per tree. Initially, trees were yielding between 15 and 30 coconuts a year, but now farmers are getting 100 or more.

The organization has been assisting farmers in getting higher yielding seeds and drip watering kits, while its extension officers have been teaching the right spacing during planting, composting and watering for higher yields, as well as which crops work well for intercropping.

“We are aiming to reach 300 (coconuts per tree),” said Mwangi Hai, the manager in charge of KCDA’s extension services, but that depends on farmers adopting the best practices and inputs. The KCDA extension officers are also isolating seedlings from high yield trees for multiplication and distribution to farmers.

The success so far has brought interest even from inland Kenya, with orders for seedlings coming from as far afield as Nyanza, Meru and Machakos. But 99 per cent of the demand remains at the Coast, where the East Africa Tall is the most common variety.

Though challenging to harvest due to its height, farmers often favour it over dwarf species that have fruit within 2 to 3 years of transplanting. The East Africa Tall takes 5 to 7 years to get its first fruits, but offers more avenues for income.

The dwarf variety is preferred by farmers selling “madafu” a popular street drink taken with a straw from a green raw coconut. The drink on the streets costs from Sh10 to Sh20.  

For farmers moving into commercial coconut farming, an acre is suited to 50 trees and can be intercropped with ‘lower crops’ like maize, beans and cassava. Each seedling costs from Sh50 to Sh100, making for an initial investment of Sh2,500 an acre. The one-off cost for a drip that can water an eighth of an acre of seedling nursery is Sh22,000, and farmers typically spend some Sh17,500 a year on composting and labour.

However, many farmers are now earning strong returns through home-based value addition that is getting mush higher prices than selling coconuts after harvest.

The market value of one coconut fruit ranges from Sh5 to Sh30 depending on the fruit size. But processing is generating Virgin coconut oil from the white fleshy kernel, which fetches Sh500 a litre.

Farmers with more advanced knowledge are also mixing the coconut oils with ingredients like aloe or neem to make soaps and cosmetics, with 100gram of body lotion selling for over Sh200.

But in spite of these high returns, over 60 per cent of the coconut business is dominated by the brewing and selling of  ‘Mnazi’ a local alcoholic drink, reports KCDA.

The ease of brewing is playing a part in keeping farmers in the business. In its rawest form, the liquid is harvested from a budding coconut flower. In 2 to 3 hours it ferments to alcohol and is ready to drink. The liquid can also be used to make vinegar. A litre of the Mnazi drink costs Sh70.

But, says KCDA, the real commercial potential of coconut in Kenya is at least Sh3.2 billion and as much as Sh13 billion if the crop was really thoroughly exploited, with even the shell used to make ropes, greenhouse shades, mats thatch and mattresses.

 

Written By James Karuga for African Laughter