French beans, Kenyan origin. Field Notes
Mathilde Fautras, “French beans, Kenyan origin. Field Notes”, Mambo! Volume VIII, n°3, 2009.
FriGoken is one of the largest producers and exporters of french beans in Kenya. The company contracts local farmers in order to promote rural development. However, the sector is not immune to illegal competition and the global situation. This article describes the process of production and the constraints which the system faces.
The horticultural sector – flowers and vegetable gardening – is one of the best performing sectors of the Kenyan economy. Depending on the year, it is the first or the second source of foreign exchange, slightly after or ahead of tourism, tea and now far ahead of coffee (However, note that the primary source of income for the Kenyan economy is the emigrants’ remittances).
French beans are among the produce that dominate the vegetable industry. The Kenyan production of french beans, 200,000 tonnes of which about 60% is controlled by the FriGoken company, is all exported, either in canned form or as fresh produce (40% of production). To supply its plant in Kariobangi, FriGoken, a subsidiary company of IPS – an Ismaili company – sign annual contracts with 35 000 small-scale farmers in the highlands (from the shores of Lake Victoria to the slopes of Nyambeni hills) that produce very slender french beans. According to the contract, these small-scale farmers (who have less than 3 acres on average) must produce their french beans on micro-plots of 250m², on which they must produce at least 150 kg (bought at 35 shillings per kg).
These plots are located in the lowlands, formerly public land which has since been allotted and given to the villagers. French beans’ cultivation dates back to fifteen years. It is an indication of a broadening of agriculture since, at the time, the acreage under cultivation was determined by grazing areas. It is therefore an important step in the process that led to the limitation of space in Kikuyu country. Nevertheless, this requires agricultural intensification since the new methods demand close gardening. Consequently, the cultivation of the french bean needs a high- intensive workforce. It requires work from more than one farmer; the son, daughters, assistants also help, especially in weeding, watering and harvesting.
The contract between farmers and FriGoken states that farmers cannot cultivate more than 250m² of french beans, because they are too poor to pay the labour force needed for an extended area that exceeds that threshold. This is taking into consideration that family labour is available for free and the quality of gardening so the production would decline.
The valley that we visited is located 10km, west of Murang’a. It floods twice a year, a process that encourages the regeneration of soil that is exhausted by this intensive cultivation. The contract between FriGoken and individual farmers explicitly states that it is prohibited to plant french beans, two consecutive times, on the same plot. There must therefore be a crop rotation: after the french beans, the farmer often grows cabbage (actually it is sukuma wiki, a lush vegetable; which literally means “push the week”), sugar cane or rarely, on these heavy and humid soils, maize too is grown.
85% of french bean farmers are women, meaning that this production has enabled women to gain a certain level of financial autonomy and female empowerment in Kikuyu land. On average, a woman can expect 25 000 shillings per year from french beans, about half of her annual cash income. This cultivation is primarily sought by women because it is a regular cash income.
Whereas the french bean rakes in much less than the dairy farming practiced by many in Central province (fodder: Napier grass or leaves of grevillea (tree) are very nutritious for the animals along with maize stalks added to scraps of french beans (10% of the average production) the beans/dairy farming is ideal because it allows for soil enrichment with manure and the recycling of french beans, that do not meet the quality criteria of FriGoken, as fodder.
A precise and delicate process
The management of production is very strict. Each farmer is known to FriGoken employees. On the ground, it employs a team of thirty people led by an agricultural technician for about 300 farmers. FriGoken provides the seeds, fertilisers, inputs, and physical assistance through an employee who prepares the plot. The inputs are used by FriGoken employees. At the beginning of the contract, each farmer undergoes a 3 course training whereby the last one is devoted to harvesting techniques. It is important not to pull or damage the bean, as its quality particularly depends on this sensitive stage. The advantage of Kenyan french beans compared to European french beans is the fact that they are harvested by hand, while the European ones are harvested mechanically.
Once the ground is ready and the seeds planted, the main daily task of the farmer is to manually weed and water the rows of beans. After 2 months of maturation, the harvest period is spread out over 4 weeks. The daily harvest cannot begin before 9/10am to allow the heat to dry the dew. If the harvest is done when the leaves are dewy, the risk of disease contamination increases.
Harvest (on average around 5 kg per day; per farmer) is then taken daily to the collection centre. The centre is never located more than 4 km, or 30 minutes’ walk away from the farm. The centre has: tables under awnings where the produce is sorted out according to size and thickness, an administrative building, restrooms and a tank of 8 000 liters of water. Some FriGoken employees help the farmers in sorting and arranging of the beans in plastic trays which are then weighed. The beans must be packaged within 24 hours after harvest. Trucks transport the produce from the collection centers to Kariobangi.
This system shows that FriGoken seeks to convert more farmers, within 4 km radius of each centre, to growing french beans. Awareness campaigns are regularly conducted by local FriGoken employees to convince farmers of the merits of this cultivation. They also have the task of identifying the stumbling blocks to the growth of french bean cultivation and the people who should be left out of the circuit because they are too difficult, not hardworking or alcoholic etc…
FriGoken can grow the beans on large farms, however, the management under IPS impetus, decided to subcontract a myriad of small-scale farmers so as to promote rural development. Beyond the profit requirement, there is a social framework that favours enrichment and savings. In addition to this, the strategy to outsource small-scale farmers reduces production risks. This risk reduction strategy is therefore not short term but medium term.
Three system constraints
First, the company faces competition from illegal poachers, that is, exporters (50 of them) of fresh french beans, who go to the fields to buy the FriGoken produce. They do this to overcome the shortcomings of their own system of production and harvesting, especially during the months of November to May (the opposite season to Europe). The farmers often accept to sell to them a certain portion (i.e. up to 50%) of production (They do not sell all because if they produce nothing for FriGoken, they will no longer be accepted as producers). These brokers pay cash while FriGoken has to pay to a bank account (Equity Bank in 80% of the cases) after deducting the expenses (of seeds, fertiliser, running costs, etc.).
As much as the contract between the farmers and FriGoken explicitly prohibits them from selling their produce to anyone other than FriGoken, the farmers have such a great need for cash that they accept the offers of these freelancers. There is fierce competition between the exporters and FriGoken to the extent that the latter has incorporated this illegal and unfair competition in its production plans by increasing the cultivation by up to a third of its actual requirements (enforced by its regulations book).
It also happens that the “regulators” supposed to resolve problems within the industry are in cohorts with these exporters and they tell them where the produce is available creating suspicion and bitterness in FriGoken employees. However, on the ground, the company employees were quick to identify and lecture, or even dismiss the offenders.
The other problem that FriGoken is likely to face is linked to the “Mungikiisation” that is spreading in Kikuyu areas. Asked about this issue employees say the company has never yielded nor paid anything to Mungiki. According to the production manager, as much as Murang’a area is effectively controlled by this mafia-like sect, to pay once is to pay forever. The argument against the Mungiki is “you want to extort money from us, so we shall leave, we will close the collection centre and go produce elsewhere “.
The threat to respond to an extortion racket by closure and relocation – clearly detrimental to local farmers – has so far enabled FriGoken to resist blackmail from the Mungiki. All the same, according to FriGoken executives, the “Mungikiisation” of Kikuyu areas discourages meaningful investments, ostentatious spending and has created protection movements, essentially vigilante groups, which ultimately have the same methods and effects as Mungiki themselves.
For farmers, the advantage of being under contract with FriGoken is the assurance of a steady, safe and guaranteed income. While working for FriGoken, they can take out loans for seeds, fertilisers, payment for agricultural technicians in charge of production and operating costs of the collection centre. However, they are sure they can repay it with proceeds from work. Indeed, if by bad luck the targeted conditions i.e. production conditions (climatic & political hazards, rains, floods, drought, etc…) do not allow them to deliver the required 150 kg, the company has neither the means nor policy to demand repayment of an amount equivalent to the inputs that were availed to farmers at the beginning of the contract.
In fact, once the contract is signed, regardless of market fluctuations, FriGoken agrees to purchase the goods ordered. On the other hand, in the medium term, the company reflects the fluctuations of world market by giving fewer or more contracts to farmers. This is why recent developments in the flower industry could have a negative impact on small-scale producers of french beans. The post- election crisis in January 2008 followed by the global financial crisis of September 2008 have led to a decreased demand and therefore production of flowers (-30% in a year).
In contrast, prices of vegetables have more than doubled in two years. The concurrence of these two major trends has convinced the large horticultural producers in Naivasha to convert part of their greenhouses to vegetable production, particularly in french beans. The entry of new and powerful actors into the sector will be felt heavily by the small-scale farmers of Murang’a.
All the vegetables at the factory come from small- scale growers. Two types of packaging are used for canning or freezing. The packaging varies according to the wishes of customers: some want whole french beans, whereas others would like the ends of the beans cut. To be canned, the vegetables are re-sorted, sterilised, snipped, boiled for a few minutes and then placed in cans or jars. The produce is then stored in palettes for a few days. The packaging is then verified, only then will the product be labeled. The packaging (cans or jars) come from abroad because even with customs taxes, the unit price remains much lower than what is on the local market.
15 days do not usually end without the company undergoing a quality audit. The presence of a resident client, permitted as a permanent observer to FriGoken, is something that is highly appreciated by the auditors. This is an explicit technical and commercial FriGoken strategy. It won them the Global GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) standard of quality, which has made them increase the contractual requirements as is expected of them.
Mathilda Fautras, 2009.
At the publishing of this article, Matilda Fautras was an intern at IFRA and a geography student at the University of Paris Ouest.
Article translated by Ndanu Mung’ala.