Macadamia the new ‘brown gold’ as global demand rises
Lewis Njoka @LewisNjoka
Frustrated by traditional cash crops such as coffee and tea, farmers have found a new income from growing macadamia trees.
The delicious nuts have proven a worthwhile venture, given the attractive profits and increasing demand, making it an ideal business for smallholder farmers.
Farmers are also attracted to the hardy crop because it has few pests and diseases and is not labour intensive, unlike most other cash crops.
Already, farmers in Nyeri, Embu, Kirinyaga, Meru, Tharaka Nithi and Taita Taveta counties traditionally associated with tea and coffee, are making a kill from macadamia nuts.
Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo Marakwet and Nandi counties are also coming up fast as nut-producing zones.
Peter Mwangi Ngubia, a macadamia farmer from Gacharage, Murang’a county, considers his macadamia trees the most prized possession on his five-and-a-half acre farm.
He has been growing the crop since 1987 when he was introduced to the business by two agricultural researchers, a Briton and Japanese, working in Thika.
He started off with 200 seedlings received from a horticulture research centre near Thika town, growing a variety locally known as Bob Harris.
Today, the farmer popularly known as Morgan, has 260 trees having cut down his crop at some point due to low prices in addition to changing the variety he grows.
Each season he harvests between 60 and 70 kilos per tree, which he sells at approximately Sh180 per kilo to local nut buying companies.
“For over 20 years, macadamia prices ranged between Sh20 and Sh30. Back then there were only two companies buying from farmers,” said Ngubia.
At about 2014, buying prices rose to about Sh80 per kilo. Recently, some farmers have been earning as high as Sh200 a kilo
More than 30 firms are licensed by the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) to process the nuts locally, most of them exporting the produce to Europe and North America.
The government banned the export of raw nuts in 2009 to create jobs and protect local processors so that they do not run out of raw materials.
Ngubia wants the farm gate prices improved further to between Sh250 and Sh300 a kilo, saying farmers deserve better compensation for all the work they put in.
He is growing four varieties; Kiambu 3, Murang’a 4, Embu 1 and Murang’a 20, with Murang’a 20 being his favourite.
“With Embu 1 and Murang’a 20, you can harvest all year round unlike other varieties,” he says.
According to Ngubia, a macadamia tree takes four to five years to mature after which one begins harvesting 20 to 30 kilos a year. The amount of yield increases as the trees age.
Taking care of the macadamia farm involves weeding, applying organic manure, lime, and molasses.
“I practice pure organic farming, so I don’t use chemical pesticides or fertiliser. I use smoking to control pests, which is more affordable for me,” he says.
Additionally, he uses molasses to trap insects, which enables him attain 80 to 90 per cent yield that’s not affected by pests. He also rears bees to boost pollination.
Proceeds from the lucrative venture have enabled him educate two of his children to university level.
“Only livestock rearing comes close to macadamia farming. We Macadamia farmers are doing well. You don’t need to start with many trees, even one will make you some money,” he advises.
Although farmers are making good money from the crop, they are still earning less than they should due to poor farming practices.
Michael Waweru, a field officer with Jungle Nut, a macadamia exporting company, says farmers in Kenya are operating below their farm potential.
“Harvesting before maturity and such wrong practises are affecting prices,” he says.
“If well taken of, no other plant can match its yield in cash per square metre. Macadamia farming is for people of all ages. You can intercrop it with tree tomatoes, avocados, coffee and so on,” he adds.
To stop sales of immature nuts, AFA has slated harvesting for between November and February every year.
Harvesting immature nuts also adds unnecessary costs associated with drying and forced de-husking, reducing profits.
The Nut and Oil Crops Directorate at AFA has been distributing free seedlings in a bid to boost production.
The State has also on several occasions reiterated that it will not lift the ban on exporting raw nuts, saying it serves to protect the interests of farmers.
Farmers, however, say delays expose them to exploitation by processors and middlemen who take advantage of macadamia glut during the harvesting period.
High cost of seedlings is also frustrating many farmers from venturing into the lucrative venture.
A seedling can cost as high as Sh300 each depending on size and variety, according to Waweru. He recommends Murang’a 20, Embu 1, and Kiambu 3 as the best varieties for intercropping.
“An acre of land should hold about 70 macadamia trees, earning close to a million shillings,” says Waweru.
Experts advise that one plants macadamia trees at least 7.5m apart, both within and between rows, to prevent the farm from becoming too bushy once the trees mature. Grafted varieties have a shorter maturity period and a higher yield rate compared to non-grafted seedlings.
In the recent past, the government has made several efforts to boost macadamia production.
By last year, macadamia prices had risen to as high as Sh220, making it one of the most lucrative cash crops in the country.
In March last year, Meru county entered a partnership with the government of Slovakia that will see 200,000 macadamia seedlings distributed to farmers in the region every year for free.
In January this year, Slovakia signed a similar agreement with the county government of Baringo to supply 560,000 seedlings at subsidised prices for the next two years.
Kenya is the third largest producer of macadamia nuts in the world after South Africa and Australia. Kenya contributes 42,000 tonnes, 20 per cent of the 200,000 tonnes produced yearly.
The outlook for macadamia is good, with the nut increasingly gaining acceptance as a food item worldwide.
It is a good, cholesterol-free source of vitamin A, iron, fiber and protein and can be eaten raw or processed into snacks.