As more and more Kenyan farmers are growing avocados, global competition remains fierce.
In a row of terraces in Murang'a county, a two-hour drive from Nairobi, the October rains have barely begun but boots are already sinking in the viscous, red soil of this fertile region, wedged between the Aberdare mountain range and Mount Kenya, an extinct volcano with snow-capped peaks.
Originating in Central America, the avocado was brought over by colonial English settlers. But until the 1970s, it was just another tree on the shamba, harvested from time to time to be eaten by the family. As coffee prices began to fall, local officials, involved in the export sector, started betting on avocados. First the Fuerte avocado, the most popular back then, then Hass avocados, which dominate the market today.
The Kenyan highlands offer good climactic conditions for the crop: a high altitude and therefore a good temperature, two rainy seasons a year, and not much need for either irrigation or fertilizers. Profits are much better than with coffee, which requires a lot of care and involves a tedious harvest. "You earn very little money," the farmer explains. "It's 50 shillings ($0.43) per kilo, but, after deducting expenses, you're left with 10 shillings. The avocado has a high payout: I earn 50 shillings per kilo, and after expenses I'm left with 45 shillings."
On the thousands of small plots of land in the region (often less than 10 hectares), a pell-mell of banana trees, papaya trees, coffee shrubs, corn and vegetables are grown. But as Mwaura Morrison explains, the real money makers are the avocados. "And since they don't demand much work, I have time for my other crops," he says. "Because you shouldn't put all your eggs in a single basket."
Demand for avocados is huge, especially in Europe and the United States, the two primary markets for the fruit, with its creamy flesh and "good" unsaturated fats. Every year sales rise by more than 10%, and overall, global avocado exports have more than doubled in a decade to 2.2 million tons.
"The boom dates back seven or eight years in Europe [where most Kenyan avocados are sold] and to the beginning of the decade 2010 in the United States," says Eric Imbert, a specialist in the economics of avocados at CIRAD (the Center for International Research in Agriculture and Development), in Montpellier, France.
The fruit, says the expert, has benefited from important marketing efforts, centered around its nutritional virtues, and from improved ripening techniques that allow consumers to buy avocados when they are at their ripest. So what's to come?