This week, Nairobi flagged off its first ever consignment of fresh avocados to China, cementing its place as the continent’s leading exporter of the fruit and the sixth largest globally.
And it could be a jackpot for local farmers who had initially failed to meet the tough conditions set by Beijing.
With a population of over 1.4 billion, China — which is the tenth leading importer of avocado globally — is now likely to become Kenya’s next leading destination for fresh avocados, which have traditionally been restricted to Europe and the Middle East.
“The net effect of accessing the Chinese market is that our avocado farmers will have more money in their pocket and increase employment in the agricultural sector,” said David Osiany, chief administrative secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Industrialisation, Trade and Enterprise Development.
At an estimated market value of $15.15 billion in 2022 according to Statista, avocado exports could transform the Kenyan economy.
In Mexico, the world’s largest exporter of avocado, the fruit is referred to as ‘green gold’. It is so valuable that farms are guarded by armed security officers or organised vigilante groups, according to a documentary on Netflix.
Last year alone, Mexico produced avocado valued at over $2.98 billion, according to Statista, with its biggest importers being the US, Canada, Germany and China.
“Sweeter and better”
Ernest Muthomi, the chief executive of the Avocado Society of Kenya, a lobby for farmers and exporters, told The EastAfrican that with the entry into the Chinese market, avocado farming is about to get “sweeter and better.”
“It is a lucrative business and with a wider market, avocado farming alone will support more than the four million people that currently depend on it,” he said.
According to Muthomi, the Hass variety of avocado that Kenya mainly exports can fetch up to $0.38 per fruit in the international market, but in the local market it sells for just about $0.04. He says this is why commercial avocado growing has been on the rise in the country.
Data from the Horticulture Crops Directorate (HCD) at Kenya’s Agriculture and Food Authority shows that avocado exports rose from 66 million tonnes in 2018 to 86 million tonnes in 2021.
Benjamin Tito, HCD director, said Kenya’s avocado exports could double with the entry into the Chinese market, terming it a “game changer.”
With the first batch of the fruits set to arrive in Shanghai in the first week of September, Kenya will be the first African country to have its avocados allowed in China.
According to Gary Du, the managing director of Greenchain, a firm that links Kenyan exporters to Chinese importers of agro products, China’s standards for avocado imports are so high that it is hard to import enough to meet the demand.
“The high standards lock out many potential exporters because there aren’t many high quality fruits globally. That leaves an ever open gap that we are now trying to fill with the Kenyan avocado,” he said.
Zhang Yijun, the minister counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in Nairobi, says Kenyan avocado have a unique and high quality that meets the high threshold set by their authorities.
Shortly after samples arrived in China last week, Wu Peng, the director-general of the Department of African Affairs in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said their importers had shown “strong interests in these high-quality avocados and plan to import on a bigger scale.”
But the journey to get Kenyan avocados into the Chinese market has not been all smooth. Talks began in November 2018 at the China Export and Import Fair, which was attended by President Uhuru Kenyatta and key state officials.
The avocados, however, failed the phytosanitary (plant health) tests run by Chinese agencies and only frozen ones were allowed for export at the time, according to Dr Esther Kimani, who was then the chief executive of the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) said.
Frozen avocados aren’t enough to tap into the vast Chinese market.
Hasit Shah, the managing director of Sunripe – which was the first firm to export frozen avocados to China – told The EastAfrican that although frozen and fresh avocados fetch the same price, exporting frozen avocados limits their market to restaurants, catering and food service clients.
“Unlike frozen avocados, fresh avocados can be sold to the people directly. Selling for both segments of the market increases our revenue,” he said.
Dr Kimani, who is now the managing director of the Pest Control Products Board, said measures have been taken to ensure exported avocados are free from pests and diseases to conform with Chinese standards.
Earlier last week, Kephis announced that 15 Kenyan firms, including Sunripe and Kakuzi Plc, had been cleared by Chinese agencies to begin exporting avocados to China, following a satisfactory inspection of their farms and premises.
Mr Shah said Sunripe will now be sending consignments to China every week, and will improve production to match the increased demand.
However, with an import duty of seven percent, Kenyan avocado will still find it hard to face off with imports from Peru and Mexico which are zero-rated in China due to existing free trade agreements.
Exporters and officials from the Ministry of Trade are already pushing for a reduction in the tariffs to less than three percent, or a complete waiver, to enable them compete favourably.
China said it will allow Kenya to export fresh avocados from farms that are certified by Kephis.
The certified firms that began to export this week will have to ensure all their production farms, pack houses and fumigation treatment facilities comply with the China health requirement as well as implement Integrated Pest Management programmes.
Officials in Nairobi have also said there will be reduced paperwork for export, speeding up the chain of goods. KenTrade chief executive Amos Wangora suggested this export will have fewer regulatory agencies.
Agencies involved in the export – including Kephis, HCD, Directorate Public Health, Port Health Services, Department of Veterinary Services, Kenya Fisheries Services, County Directorate of Fisheries, State Department of Trade Kenya Fish Processors and Exporters Association, Avocado Society of Kenya and Avocado Exporters Association of Kenya – have been condensed in one export portal for easier procedure, Wangora said.
Additional reporting by Anthony Kitimo