Nelly Bassily | September 20, 2010
Joseph Ndirangu Muriithi is a worried man. After watching the decline of coffee farming in Kenya a decade ago, he now fears for his macadamia trees. They have been hit by disease. So far, he has lost three of his 45 trees. He is nervous that more might die soon.
Macadamia has provided a steady income for Mr. Muriithi over the years. He says, “When I planted my trees … 26 years ago, I did not know that it was a potential cash crop that would see my children through their education.”
The 55-year-old farmer from Karia village in central Kenya used to grow coffee. He worries that his macadamia crop will follow coffee into decline. “My biggest worry right now is the emergence of diseases that have proven to be fatal to the cash crop.”
But Mr. Muriithi has little to fear. Research scientist Jesca Mbaka has the interests of macadamia farmers at heart.
Ms. Mbaka is based at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, known as KARI. She says, “With support from other scientists and organizations, we hope to bring the disease into total control as soon as possible. Farmers must never lose hope on this big cash crop.”
Ms. Mbaka discovered that two of the main diseases in macadamia are caused by a fungus. It is the first time the fungus has affected macadamia, though it commonly affects avocado trees in Kenya. The fungus dries the bark of a tree, killing it in just a few months.
Ms. Mbaka is developing a fungicide to tackle the diseases. She is keen that the results of her studies be used to benefit smallholder farmers in Africa. She says, “I have been working in the laboratory but I am just about to take it to the greenhouse for trials. Then it will go to on-station trials before getting to farmers’ fields. It might reach farmers fields early next year.”
Until then, her advice to farmers is to avoid waterlogging in their orchards and to use clean planting material. She says, “Organic soil management helps. In areas where organic manure is used, the disease is not prevalent.”
Back on the farm, Mr. Muriithi makes an average of 1,300 American dollars every harvest (around 990 Euros). He sells the nuts to companies that export them, but says the price is still low. However, he is able to pay school fees for three children in his extended family.
Like many other farmers, Mr. Muriithi is optimistic that macadamia will emerge as a profitable cash crop in the near future, as coffee was in the past. He says, “All we need is for the scientists to offer a remedy for the prevailing diseases, and some of us can promise never to die poor.”