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Kenyan Farmers Watch as Chinese Garlic Slowly Claims Market

John Gatundu at his stall at the City Park Market in Nairobi, Kenya. He sells locally grown garlic which faces stiff competition from the Chinese variety. [Photo/Kimani Chege]

In Nairobi, you can never go wrong shopping for vegetables, fruits and spices at the City Park Market, which provides an array of farm produce from across the globe.

The Kenyan capital is a melting pot of various culinary cultures due to its cosmopolitan nature which brings people from all over the world. Buyers keen to replicate their home diets and a blend of local delicacies flock to City Market which is less than 10 minutes from the metropolis and just 6 kilometers away from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) headquarters whose staff lives in close proximity to the famed Nairobi’s spice market.

At this market, John Gatundu, a man in his early 60s tends to a group of Korean buyers.

A long haggling ensues until the buyers purchase several kilos of Kenyan garlic. With a beaming face, he bids the buyers farewell as he gets back to spreading already peeled cloves.

For over two decades, Gatundu has sold several varieties of the bulb at the market. This time has given him an understanding of the tastes and preferences of various customers.

“Koreans and Indians prefer the local variety because of the distinct aroma. If you meet a buyer from China, they would only purchase Chinese varieties,” he says. 

He used to mix the two varieties but now only stocks the local variety.

A few stalls from Gatundu, Mama Njanja is busy peeling a bucketful of Chinese garlic for a hotel order. Its distinct white color and large cloves are a major attraction to her buyers. She says local demand for the variety has been growing giving her good returns.

While Gatundu receives his supply from Nyeri, 200 kilometers away, Mama Njanja’s stock is shipped thousands of kilometers from various provinces in China. With it, a significant amount of carbon emission. 

In comparison to other food crops, garlic has a low carbon footprint in terms of cultivation. Research has shown that it takes about 0.95 Kg of carbon dioxide equivalent to produce a kilogram of spice, compared to other major carbon-intensive crops like green peas

However, in the case of Chinese garlic in Kenya, the distance it travels to get to the market is long which increases its carbon footprint.

Significant imports from China are meant to meet the shortfall since Kenyan farmers produce only 2,000 metric tonnes which only meets 50 to 60% of local needs. The rest is supplemented by imports from Rwanda and Tanzania.

China supplies over 80% of global demand, with fleets and consignments docking in almost all harbors in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), garlic production in China was 20.8 million metric tons in 2020 valued at over $525 million. 

In Kenya, Chinese garlic is cheaper compared to local varieties and easy to peel, attracting both domestic consumers and hotels. 

David Murage is perplexed by the entry and the growing popularity of this variety in Kenya.

The farmer from Kenya’s garlic-growing area of Nyeri’s Kiawara village on the slopes of Mt Kenya admits that it will take time for the Chinese variety to fully replace those grown locally.

He admits that there is a reduction in the earnings for local farmers.

Murage, who has farmed the cloves for over five years in Kenya and Tanzania observes that local varieties are environmentally cleaner compared to the imported ones.

His views are shared by Gatundu who recommends the introduction of a carbon tax on imported garlic to enable the local varieties to compete fairly with the imported varieties.

John Gatundu separates garlic bulbs at his stall at the City Park Market in Nairobi, Kenya. [Photo/Kimani Chege]

A kilo of local garlic at farm gate prices according to Murage is about $3 while the Chinese one retails at less than that at $2 even with the distance covered. During the height of Covid-19, the demand for the bulb as an immune booster shot up leading to the doubling of prices.

At the time, a kilo of garlic was fetching up to $8. The price has since gone back to where it was as the demand reduced.

Dr. Alice Kaudia, a former high-ranking official at the Ministry of Environment in Kenya said that the product grown thousands of kilometers away retails cheaper than local varieties because of trade agreements that have been existing prior to climate change concerns.

“From an environmental perspective, the price of the garlic we see on our shelves coming from China does not reflect the absolute cost because it does not factor in the cost it inflicts on the environment,” adds Dr. Kaudia. 

This absolute cost includes transportation as well as the cost of curing the harvested cloves with electricity. Curing is the drying of garlic with sustained heat, sometimes in an electric kiln, to reduce the amount of water and control the formation of mold, hence prolonging the shelf life. 

Back at Nairobi’s City Park market, both Mama Njanja and Gatundu seem to agree on the need to develop better seeds for various garlic varieties. This would enable local farmers to grow even those varieties popular in China.

“Our government or Chinese institutions should provide seeds for us to grow locally. The available cloves in the market are not capable of germination and propagation due to electrical curing,” notes Gatundu. 

He alludes that China should be able to provide the transfer of agricultural technologies through seed propagation of the Chinese variety.

During the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Dakar Senegal which dwelt much on climate change, a communique was released to show the role of China in supporting African markets with technology transfer.

The communique read, “The Chinese side supports efforts to help Africa become self-sufficient in food through such ways as financing and partnering with the private sector, and will promote technology transfer to support Africa in developing its economy, boosting employment and reducing poverty.”

One such venture is the  Sino-Africa Joint Research Center (SAJOREC) at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. Here Kenyan and Chinese scientists collaborate in diverse fields like agriculture and biodiversity conservation.

Since its establishment, the decade-old Chinese-funded SAJOREC has undertaken 45 joint research programs mainly focusing on drought mitigation. The Chinese provide technical support and genetic resources like seeds, tissues and DNA sequences.

While the main research is primarily towards addressing food security, traders like Gatundu, Mama Njanja, and Kenyan garlic farmers like Murage hope will have to contend with the inflow of Chinese garlic.

Chinese garlic (white) and the Kenyan variety at a market stall. The variety from China is edging out its Kenyan counterpart which is slightly expensive. [Photo/Kimani Chege]

Kenya imports a sizeable amount of its food products and the situation is deteriorating since most of its agriculture relies heavily on the rains. With food sovereignty still far off, imported farm products will continue and China’s share will likley expand further.

The upside of the Chinese garlic influx offers buyers more variety and due to competition, lower prices for the bulbs. This leaves local producers contending with a shrinking local garlic market driven by cheap imports.

Asked if the government should make it hard for the imported garlic to get into Kenya, Mama Njanja said that this might not be a viable solution since it will deny consumers a choice. She added that this would also affect the large number of buyers who prefer the Chinese variety.

If the fears in the garlic market grow, the sector may see a push to regulate it like it happened with the fishing sub-sector when early this year, the Kenyan parliament proposed introducing a 20% excise duty in a bid to protect the local fishing industry. This scheme has yet to materialize.

For the sector, there is a high likelihood that any such proposal would face the same fate, at least in the short term, and going by the fizzled enthusiasm to curb fish imports. Thus, Kenyan garlic farmers will have to contend with the reality and probability of Chinese garlic flooding the market and forcing them out leaving traders and consumers with the Chinese produce that is fast becoming a preference for many buyers.

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