When farmers in Kasipul and Kabondo sub-counties in Homa Bay County uprooted their coffee plants three years ago in favour of banana farming, they hoped for good returns.
But the more than 500 farmers are now a frustrated lot.
Before switching to banana farming, the farmers had tried their luck by growing sweet potatoes, which were in high demand in the Nyanza region and other parts of the country. That, too, failed.
The coffee story drove the farmers into misery and hopelessness. The farmers decided to uproot the coffee bushes and took to banana farming as an alternative source of income.
But middlemen infiltrated the markets, pushing down prices for the bananas.
The farmers are now desperate, without a ready market for their produce as they ponder what to do next to salvage their investments in banana farming.
This is happening after corruption in coffee production forced them to abandon the crop with hopes of making a fortune out of bananas.
Sadly, the farmers, who had hoped to commercialise farming, are now left at the mercy of cartels involving middlemen who are buying the bananas at throw-away prices, leaving farmers battling for survival in the business.
The farmers have been left to hawk their produce in local markets along the roads.
The weather in Kasipul and Kabondo constituencies is an extension of cool and wet conditions, which are characteristic of the neighbouring Kisii and Nyamira counties.
Michael Ouko has been a farmer of tissue cultured bananas in Kojwach, Homa Bay county, for the last three years. With slightly above 200 holes of bananas on his farm, his crops have been maturing weekly but he has no market to sell them.
“Bananas perform very well in this area, as you can see. But we have no reliable buyers and market to maximise on profit,” he said during an interview in his plantation.
He sourced his seedlings of varied species from the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) in Kisii. Some of the species in his farm include Kenya cavandish, Gros Michel and Ng’ombe. Of these, it is only Ng’ombe that can be cooked. Both Kenya cavandish and Gros michel can only be eaten when ripe — and they are the majority.
The Nation observed that most of the mature bunches from Mr Ouko’s farm weighed between 50-70kg.
Mr Ouko disposes of his produce at throw-away prices to local women who sell them in Oyugis town on Tuesdays and Fridays and to other smaller markets in the region. The bananas end up flooding the markets, and thus a drop in prices.
“I sell them to the middlemen who offer between Sh250 and Sh350 for a bunch. This is a huge loss. At worst, we should be selling at about Sh700,” Mr Ouko explained.
This reality is a huge disappointment for Mr Ouko who earlier on had cleared his coffee plantation hoping to reap big from banana farming.
The first Speaker of the Homa Bay County Assembly Samuel Ochillo is also a resident of Kasipul.
In 2017, he committed his two-acre parcel of land to banana farming and grew 400 plants. Currently, he prunes them to ensure only 3 plants per hole.
Best agricultural practices
“While serving as the speaker, members of the assembly benchmarked on best agricultural practices in Israel and came up with a report. The report, which included banana farming, was not implemented by the executive. But I decided to try my hand in banana farming,” offers Mr Ochillo.
“I received my certified suckers from KALRO in Kisii and did everything, including covering the bunches, to ensure quality and maximum production, as had been recommended in the report. My crops did so well but finding a proper market became a real challenge. Most of my bananas ended up — and still do — in Oyugis market where they are disposed at throw-away prices when ripe.”
Mr Ochillo, a lawyer by profession, added: “With suckers from KALRO, you can never go wrong. Banana farming is a success story in Kasipul, Kabondo, parts of Rangwe and Ndhiwa.”
He, however, faulted the Homa Bay county’s department of agriculture for not ensuring value addition and helping farmers find profitable markets despite the potential for banana farming.
“Three years since I started growing bananas, I am already discouraged. I will soon be converting my farm to avocado growing,” he said.
He intends to mobilise 100 farmers who can do avocado farming so that they can form a sacco society and target the Chinese market.
Kasipul Sub-County Crop Production Officer Penina Moraa, who until recently worked in Rachuonyo East (Kabondo), confirmed to the Nation that a lot of farmers have since cleared coffee bushes from their farms.
“So many farmers did clear coffee off their farmers and many have given up on sweet potato farming because they are not profitable,” she said.
However, with respect to banana farming, Ms Moraa said there is hope because of the World Bank-funded National Agricultural Regional Integrated Growth Project (NARIGP).
“Marketing has been a problem but NARIGP is coming in to ensure a proper market for bananas, plus other crops being considered by the programme,” she said.
But Miriu CBO Secretary Mary Anyango blamed the farmers in the region for not consulting before ditching coffee for banana farming.
Ms Anyango is, however, upbeat that with the funding and capacity building by NARIGP, as the producer organisation for banana value chain in the entire Homa Bay County, the crop is the next big thing — not just in Kasipul and Kabondo.