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Tomato crisis: Survival tips for farmers, sellers

By George Mbakaya
Ruth Wanjiku at her grocery in Wakulima Market in Nakuru County. (Harun Wathari, Standard)

Shortage of tomatoes during rainy season can be prevented.

Tomato supply has hit a record high in most parts of the country due to low production against high demand.

Kenyans are already making a joke that soon, tomatoes will be expensive than apples.

Tomato, which was ranked as the worlds’ tenth most valuable commodity as well as the most valuable horticultural crop, has seen a sharp increase in price. The fruit which has been selling Sh5, is now selling Sh25.

The increase in prices have been attributed to low supply which is as a result of heavy rains pounding the growing areas.

It is estimated that more than 80 per cent of tomatoes produced are from open fields which are affected by erratic weather conditions.

Bacterial and fungal diseases

Few months ago, we reported about tomatoes going to waste due to overproduction.

This is a trend among tomato farmers whereby the farmers produce the crop when conditions are favourable and avoid it when they are not suitable especially the wet season. The trend can be reversed if farmers adopted modern production technology and good agronomic practices.

Growing tomatoes in rainy season comes with challenges of bacterial and fungal diseases, and rotting of the fruits.

This increases the cost of production because farmers have to invest more in chemicals to control diseases such as early blight and late blight. During the rainy season, the crop also exhibits poor fruit set which also reduces the yields.

Way forward

So, how can farmers avoid such scenario of oversupply and under supply? The answer lies in the adoption of greenhouse farming.

In a greenhouse, you can continuously produce throughout the seasons.

You can grow whenever and however you want. Whether it rains or doesn’t, whether it’s too cold or too hot, you just produce! Farmers can take advantage of the prevailing weather conditions and adjust prices accordingly to his /her advantage. During wet conditions, tomatoes in open fields are prone to pests and diseases. In some cases, farmers can lose up to 100 per cent of the produce. In greenhouse, these losses are minimised due to favourable growing conditions it provides.

The crop is protected from harsh conditions that affect production.

When producing in open fields, best agronomic practices would assist in combating problems that come with wet weather.

For rain-fed tomatoes, start your crop in a nursery. You must give your crops enough spacing to ensure adequate ventilation. During this period, humidity is very high and it encourages disease infestation. You could decide to plant in a single row on the bed or use zigzag planting pattern.

The distance you choose to provide between your tomato plants will depend on your pruning method, but the goal is to make sure there’s open air between them. We prune to three main stalks and tie the plants to a stake, so we only need about three feet between plants. If you have got more space, more room is always better.

Check on the plants daily

Staking tomatoes ensures that the fruits do not come in contact with the soil which would result in rotting. Rotten fruit have reduced market value. Staking also increases ventilation of the tomatoes field and therefore reduces incidences of disease outbreak. Properly staked crop enables the farmer to carry out routine activities on the farm with ease such as scouting, spraying, weeding and harvesting.

Have robust diseases control programme

Plant on raised beds to ensure water drains well from the farm. Do not make your beds across flood path but rather along flood path. Have a diseases control programme in place in readiness for any eventuality. During the rainy season, the tomato crop is susceptible to bacterial and fungal diseases. Do not wait until the plant is infected. Start with preventive sprays to control diseases. Have a pre-determined protocol handy and apply as arranged.

Preventive sprays ensure that the crop is not infected because once the crop is affected then yields will be affected too. Pest control protocol goes with disease control as well but you may not need to apply regularly as that of disease control applications. Depending on the crops in question, you might need to wait to see before you apply pest control measure. However, it is important to do adequate scouting every time because most pest particularly insect aren’t easily seen by the naked eye from afar. Make a habit of walking through your farm and check the leaves under side; that is where most insects hide. Get rid of weeds as they compete for nutrients and reduce yields. Weeds also act as alternate host of some pests.

Timely Harvesting

If you don’t harvest as at when due, then you might end up not getting anything to harvest on your farm. High humidity often leads to among other things, fruits getting rotten.

Value addition

Value addition is also a great strategy to avoid being a victim of frustrating seasons characterised by shortages. Instead of selling raw tomato which has a short shelf life, farmers need to go the value addition way. They can invest in simple and affordable technologies like tomato crushers for making tomato paste.

Market situation

Meanwhile, as prices continue to soar, tomato farmers have expressed their frustrations navigating through the complex value chain. Victor Swanya, who was growing tomatoes in Nyamira in a greenhouse, says he quit because of the production costs.

“Running a tomato greenhouse is no joke. You incur heavy costs like electricity because you have to pump volumes of water to irrigate the crops. On top of that, if you produce a lot and much of it goes to waste due to lack of market, its eats into your profits margins and you may end up with losses. There are also hefty transport costs because you have to ferry the produce from the farm to the markets in cities like Nairobi. As a coping mechanism, he plans to invest in a tomato paste machine so that “when I resume, I can use the machine to do value addition and avoid rotting of tomatoes.”

Other than the high prices, the quality of the tomatoes is also an issue in the market as most of them are small and unappealing to many consumers. 

A spot check at Muthurwa market in Nairobi by Smart Harvest on Wednesday paints a picture of frustrated buyers and sellers. “There are no tomatoes in the market because of the rains. I source my produce from Loitoktok which is one of the large source markets. As the rains subside, we are optimistic that things will stabilise in the coming months,” said Mr John Muiruri, a tomatoes dealer.

Transport issues have compounded the problem. “During rainy seasons, the roads become muddy and this affects access to farms with harvested tomatoes. That is why there is a shortage,” Muiruri said.

With such a scenario, prices rise by the day. At the moment, Muriruri said they are selling a 64-kilo box as high as Sh10,000.

Cartels

Meanwhile, there is talk that cartels in the name of brokers have infiltrated the tomato value chain and have a hand in influencing market forces.

At one of the popular social media platforms for farmers on Facebook, tomato farmers complained they are stuck with the produce on their farms because they have refused to budge in to the demands of brokers.

“The government should step in and destroy these cartel networks. They are hurting the business,” said Ms Loice Njagi, who grows tomatoes in Loitoktok one of the large supplies of tomatoes in the country. Then there is the weather. The Kenya Meteorological Department said in January the rains would continue in some parts of the country till late February, thus affecting the short rain crops like tomatoes. Other than tomatoes, the erratic rain patterns also affected perishable produce such as potatoes which started to rot on the farms due to too much water. This in turn afffected supply and pushed prices up. But there is hope of prices stabilising in the coming weeks as rains subside.

[Additional information by James Wanzala]

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