Walking on Gravel
Kenya’s history is full of incidents that insinuate that every time the country experiences some measure of success, such accomplishment soon becomes the bane to her further enhanced status. This reflects in the macadamia sub-sector too. Kenya occupies the third position in the global macadamia kernel export market, behind the leader Australia and South Africa respectively. This evokes an expectation to invest in the relevant technologies and best practices to either maintain the position or move even further up on the charts. However, the picture on the ground is not as per this expectation. As we put it back home, kwa ground mambo ni tofauti (On the ground things are different).
Wisdom From The East
A Chinese legend has it that two princes found themselves stranded in a desert. They were running away because the younger brother had been bequeathed the throne by his dying father. Out of honor, he refused to assume power after the king’s death, and instead, ran away with his disinherited elder brother. That was the beginning of their long ordeal in the harsh desert. Because of their virtue, the heavens came to their rescue in the form of a deer, which could provide milk for their sustenance. After surviving on the milk for some time, the brothers had an idea. They started wondering aloud about how delicious the meat of the deer would be, given that the milk was so tasty and life supporting. The deer heard them plotting, and it fled back to heaven. No need to belabor their joint fate. Their mindset was tuned for doom, whether the deer opted to flee or remain among them.
Can’t Touch This
A report by the CBI (an organization for the promotion of agricultural exports from the developing world to the European market) paints a grim picture of Kenya’s macadamia export prospects. There are two important documents which I will keep referring to in subsequent posts as I explore the general theme of the need for a paradigm shift in Kenya’s macadamia processing. One is a research conducted in 2019, and another is a webinar that took place in December 2020, both sanctioned by the CBI. In the research published in a document entitled Value Chain Analysis of Macadamia Nuts in Kenya, the worrying quality of Kenya’s macadamia kernel comes out so strongly.
Case of One Rotten Fish
It is presumed that in order to occupy the enviable third position on the world market, Kenya must have supplied the world with high quality kernel. That aspersions should be cast on the same should be a matter of concern to the players in the sub sector. In the webinar we are referring to here, there is an explicit reference to Kenya as having been shunned by German importers, owing to disappointing kernel quality. Whereas this might not refer to all processors in the industry, the once bitten buyer is more than twice shy of every player in Kenya.
So what if the Germans are shunning kernel from Kenya? Could we wave them away and say wakwende! (let them go to hell) Kenya-style? Much as that would make us feel good, it is a move the Kenyan processor cannot afford. This is because Europe is the number one market for macadamia kernel, with Germany (unfortunately for Kenya in this particular case), the Netherlands and Spain firmly seated on the high table and calling the shots. To compound Kenya’s predicament, Germany’s macadamia kernel market is dominated by 5 companies, which command 80% of the trade. As per the 2018 figures, Germany and the Netherlands accounted for 98% of Kenya’s kernel export market. If these aristocrats of the trade won’t touch your product, then it becomes your turn to kwenda (go to hell) for real.
A Lover Jilted
In my community, we say that it is extremely difficult for a suitor to win back the heart of a girl whose heart he has broken. This is especially if her mind is made to shift her attention elsewhere. It takes a lot of effort and includes the elders, and the entire extended family; for if the bad reputation is left to fester, then it paints a very negative picture of the family and no other member of the same family might succeed in their bid to win a bride; unless they move many villages far, and into another community altogether. Sadly though, you can hardly afford such luxury in the global village. Bad reputation, just like a lie, travels halfway round the world, before good reputation jumps into her pants. Even in cases where the brothers at the center of this dispute were at war, either between themselves or with their father, it becomes imperative that they cease fire and have a joint approach toward repairing their smudged image. They will want to get to the bottom of the matter; shoring up each other to ensure that their social standing is redeemed.
Of Nuts and nuts
The major shortcoming with Kenya’s kernel that earned them a bad name is the inclusion of premature nuts in their consignment to this important market. In macadamia processing, one of the basic practices is to sort the kernel so as to get rid of the premature nuts. In the macadamia world, kernel is graded by styles, with the smallest whole kernel falling between 10-13mm in diameter. Premature nuts are not only distinguishable by size, but also color. The latter is especially a factor, given that there are some mature nuts which do not get to grow to full size as the premium nuts. These don’t meet the export standards, even though they are good for human consumption. The danger with availing such to the export market is that the chances of having the immature nuts slip in through together with the undersized is quite real.
A discerning and trained eye (which is expected in the kernel pack-house) will be able to separate the immature from the undersized and the standard export quality kernel. That immature kernel should make it to the customer’s stable is an indictment of the sub sector as perhaps wanting in skilled manpower, technology or willingness to ensure that only mature kernel gets to pass through their systems.
The Nutty Professors
There are even other equally unbecoming practices such as a processor prematurely offloading a drier, only to end up with kernel whose moisture content is above the permissible levels. Instead of owning up to the infraction and living with it as an expensive lesson learned, the unscrupulous processor then decides to send the kernel back to the the drier. This amounts to something akin to botched roasting, which totally interferes with the taste of the kernel. . When the ill-fated processor decides to saddle the customer with such kernel, doesn’t it amount to fraud?Remember, even when the kernel is eventually subjected to roasting, it is done at a certain moisture content; and this contributes to both the crunch and taste of the resulting snack.
Some years back, a Kenyan theater group staged a play entitled Mfungwa Tuliyemsahau (The Prisoner we chose to Forget). The play centered around the struggle of Kenya’s independence from British colonialism, during which a number of Kenyan freedom fighters were hauled into detention. The famous among them were the six who were detained in some arid part of the country after a ridiculous trial in a remote town called Kapenguria. The struggle thus shifted to the release of the six prominent figures; among them Jomo Kenyatta, the man who was later to become Kenya’s first president. At the dawn of independence, the ensuing euphoria saw Kenyans lose sight of the essence of their freedom struggle. Could this be the case in the macadamia sub sector? Is the Kenyan macadamia processor fraternity still lost in the toast of successful ascent to the third position? For how long? Is the sub sector on the path to becoming bogged in their fate in the industry, just as the country is still grappling with nationhood, more than half a century after independence?
Slaying the Life-Giving Deer?
Like the deer in the Chinese folk tale, the Kenyan macadamia exporters have shown signs of their desire to slaughter the deer that sustains their trade. Closer home, we feed on homing pigeons. If you are going to prepare one or a few of these for your table, you never do it while the others are watching; otherwise, the rest will take off, never to come back. The flip side is that whenever you feed your pigeons well, others just appear from the wild and take residence in your home, adding to your flock. As the Germans give Kenya’s kernel a wide berth, other buyers have been observing us too.
Whatever the country is going to do in order to redeem its image in the leading macadamia kernel market is something worth pursuing with keen interest. While the general public will readily answer in the affirmative to the suggestion that something should be done to salvage our blotched reputation, it squarely lies in the court of the macadamia exporters’ fraternity to answer the subsequent question to which the public usually answers with a wide eyed and confused ‘mh?’ That is, what should be done?
Written by Amadi Kwaa Atsiaya