In a change from the droughts and floods that often plague his tomato plantation in central Kenya, David Kariuki’s latest harvest has been more bountiful than he could have hoped - and yet, he is not sure he can afford his children’s school fees.
A stretch of favourable weather has led to a bumper crop for Kariuki, 34, and other farmers in Kirinyaga County, whose numbers have swelled as workers made jobless by the coronavirus pandemic turned to farming to make ends meet.
With the market flush with fresh produce, buyers are offering only a fraction of the usual price, if they are buying at all.
“I have always relied on farming horticultural produce to pay for educating my children,” said Kariuki, strolling through his small farm in Kariko village, picking tomatoes to take home.
“But I can’t see myself breaking even this year. We have an abundance of produce and now we have no or very low market,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Farmers in Kirinyaga County say they are stuck with more produce than they can sell, as early rains and the financial pain of COVID-19 prompt more people to take to the fields.
This year’s ample rainfall has also financially hit farmers who irrigate their crops instead of relying on the rain, said Gachara Gikungu, a consultant with Kilimo Biashara Promoters, which provides agricultural extension services.
Usually, those farmers count on selling their produce during dry spells without competition from rain-fed farms, but with the early rains they have lost that advantage, he explained.
And the impact of the pandemic means Kenyans also have less money to spend on fresh fruit and vegetables, Gikungu noted.
“With many now lacking purchasing power, the demand for some commodities remains low,” he said.
Kariuki said in previous years he could sell a 100-kg (220-pound) box of tomatoes for up to 8,000 Kenyan shillings ($74) - now he can only get a quarter of that. He fears he could lose more than 300,000 shillings by the end of the season.
“I have been growing tomatoes for the last six years, and I have not experienced such a crisis,” he said.