They are tasty, exotic nuts rich flavour. And, in the world of nuts and berries, they are almost as precious as gold. These are macadamia nuts introduced in Kenya more than 60 years ago. Besides being delicious, they are packed with nutritional value. They are equipped with omega seven, which helps in lowering blood cholesterol and curtail heart disease.
“Macadamia contains no cholesterol; medical studies have shown that eating six to 20 nuts a day lowers blood cholesterol levels by 7 per cent in four weeks,” writes James Mwangi Nderitu in his book, Success in Agriculture Vol.6.
The nut is also a rich source of magnesium, vital in muscle contraction and contains vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from damage caused by free radicals. Macadamia also help in consolidation of bones and teeth. But that is not all, any serious macadamia farmer currently laughs all the way to the bank due to the rich earnings that come with the crop.
However, despite all this and though Kenya is the fourth largest producer in the world of the nuts after Hawaii, Australia and South Africa, many people still have no idea that they are grown locally.
The hard-shelled nut introduced in Kenya in 1945 by white settlers was not commercialized until a few years ago and today, a number of farmers especially from central Kenya, are growing it to supplement their coffee income. One of them is Mrs Florence Wamaitha Ndirangu who protested when her husband introduced the crop on their small piece of land in Nyeri County in 1986. She saw no value in a crop she believed would eat into the land reserved for growing food crops such as maize, beans and potatoes. A large portion of the four-acre piece of land they owned was occupied by about 1,000 coffee trees and fear of losing the remaining to the then unprofitable macadamia trees resulted in bitter arguments with her husband. That was more than two decades ago. Today she laughs when she recalls how out of ignorance, she quarreled with him. Now a widow, Mrs Ndirangu has a reason to thank her late husband, Samuel Ndirangu, albeit posthumously “for being such a visionary farmer.”
“I am happy that my late husband ignored my protests and stood his ground. Today the nuts are rivaling coffee in terms of income,” she says at her home in Mung’aria village, Tetu District of Nyeri County. This year, her 100 macadamia trees produced 6,000 kilos of nuts and she pocketed Sh360,000.
The money earned from the sale of nuts is enough to buy food like maize, beans and potatoes. “I no longer cultivate food crops here. I realised that it was more profitable to grow coffee and macadamia than to purchase foodstuffs from the earnings,” she says.
And true to her argument, many of her neighbours in the village hardly produce enough food to see them through the next harvest. Many people in Tetu district own about three acres of land where they grow both cash and food crops. But having tilled the land year in year out without adding manure, the soil has been losing its fertility resulting in poor yields. This is why farmers like Mrs Ndirangu prefer to invest in macadamia and coffee, whose producer prices have improved over the years.
“Unlike some years back, there is money in cash crops like coffee and macadamia compared
to food crops, while inputs are minimal,” says Mrs Ndirangu. For instance last year, she earned Sh420,000 from the sale of coffee parchment. “Last year, I had 1,230 kilos of grade P1, 875 kilos of grade P2 and 326 kilos of light grade, which I sold to Central Kenya Coffee Mills, earning over Sh400,000,” she says.
Some of her macadamia trees are intercropped with the coffee. “Though agriculture experts do not recommend intercropping coffee with macadamia, I have not seen any damage to either crop,” she says. However, she notes that unlike coffee, marketing of macadamia is not streamlined and many are the times the nuts are sold through middlemen. “Macadamia prices have been fluctuating and it is only this year that we sold on average a kilo for Sh60, compared to the last three years where a kilo has been fetching Sh30,” she says. However, the Government is now promising farmers that it has stepped into this sub-sector and prices will now remain steady and attractive. “Though we cannot promise that prices will no longer fluctuate, we can guarantee farmers that producer prices will no longer go below Sh50 a kilo,” says Mr Patrick Onchieku, officer in charge of nuts at Kilimo House, Ministry of Agriculture headquarters.
As a step to stabilise prices, the government has brought the six macadamia nut processers in the country together, to chat the way forward for this fledgling sector. “Through ministry support, we have established Nut Processors Association of Kenya and our aim is to set up uniform producer prices to keep off middlemen,” says Mr Onchieku. The association will ensure availability of quality seedlings; encourage farmers to practice good harvesting methods and good husbandry to produce high quality nuts for export. Presently, Kenya produces between 15,000 to 20,000 metric tonnes of macadamia nuts annually from a plantation of 4,000 acres spread around Mt Kenya region, Western, Nyanza and Coast Provinces.
Some of the processed nuts are exported while others are consumed locally. Macadamia trees do well in coffee growing areas like Embu, Kirinyaga, Meru, Kiambu, Nyeri, Machakos, Taita, Baringo, Bungoma and Trans Nzoia. However, 98 per cent of the country’s total production is from the Mount Kenya region. According to Mr Onchieku, Kenya exports processed nuts to Europe, United States and Japan. “Previously, we used to export raw nuts to China but we are no longer encouraging this. We want the products to be processed here before exporting them so that we create jobs,” says the official.
Kenya is capable of processing 60,000 metric tonnes of nuts annually, but we currently only produce 20,000 metric tonnes. “We still have a deficit of 40,000 metric tones and that is why we are encouraging farmers to grow quality macadamia nuts to bridge this gap,” says Mr Onchieku.
Those interested in buying hybrid macadamia seedlings can get in touch with Kenya Agriculture Research Institute in Thika or Embu. Nut processors like Murang’a-based Equatorial Nut Processors Limited and Kenya Nut Company of Thika also graft seedlings, which they sell through coffee factories at between Sh80 to Sh110 a piece. Once planted, the tree starts producing nuts after four to five years. However, the official urges farmers to understand that just like coffee, producers prices will always be determined by the law of demand and supply in the international market. In the world, macadamia is grown commercially in Malawi, Hawaii, Australia, Israel, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and Brazil and supply by these countries influence the prices in the international markets.