On the left side of Kenya’s coat of arms, a white flower that once dotted the volcanic soils of the Great Rift Valley shines alongside pictures of the more famous tea and coffee crops, a symbol of the economic boon it once brought to one of Africa’s agricultural powerhouses.

Yet the pyrethrum flower – also known as a chrysanthemum – has all but disappeared from the East African nation’s fertile lands, the victim of a familiar tale on the continent in the post-colonial era. 

Africa’s agricultural bounty is beset by many tales of corruption, mismanagement, and rent-seeking. The culprits are many, from greedy middlemen and crooked government officials to outdated processing factories and a failure to keep up with modern farming techniques. 

The story of Kenya’s pyrethrum and an American company’s plans to rejuvenate the cash crop in partnership with the government offers insight into how Africa’s agricultural future may lie in revisiting and refitting its colonial past with a modern eye toward local livelihoods. 

Pyrethrum – which yields a key ingredient in pesticides and generates $3.5 billion of the $55 billion that the world’s pesticide industry earns each year – no longer brings the glory it once did to the East African nation’s agricultural exports. 

Kenya has grown pyrethrum since 1928 and at its peak in the 1980s controlled 70 percent of the world’s market. But it ceded the top spot to Australia’s Tasmania after the Pyrethrum Board of Kenya began taking as long as four years to pay farmers – and suffered from competition from cheaper synthetic variants of the key extract, pyrethrins.

“All you could see were those white flowers.”

Kenya’s Ambassador to the United States, former Finance Minister Robinson Njeru Githae, draws a stark picture of the industry’s collapse. 

“I remember driving up the Rift Valley, and when you got past Nakuru, on the left, all you could see were those white flowers, and they were so beautiful,” he told the audience at a recent investment presentation at the embassy in Washington, D.C. “Now, there is nothing.”

That’s something a team of American entrepreneurs have seized upon as a way to reintroduce the crop, create livelihoods for subsistence farmers and make a profit. 

While to some it may seem like a return of the foreign-run colonial production model where profits went overseas, Kentegra Biotech is trying to turn that practice on its head by putting the interests of local farmers in line with its plans.   

Making no secret of its intention to profit from the crop, Kentegra has begun building a refinery plant, contracted 6,000 farmers and given them seedlings at no cost to get started. 

Instead of opting for a flower variety that grows once a year – favored by industrially-farmed exporting nations – Kentegra has chosen a variety that produces a crop every two weeks for 10 months of the year. 

The idea is to entice farmers to plant more with regular payments, and simultaneously protect their crops with the shorter growth cycle, according to CEO Bill Schafer. 

Crops that can only be harvested once a year can wipe out small-holder farmers who cannot afford to lose a whole crop the way industrial farms can.   

Given the speed of harvest in Kenya, Schafer said, it’s not hard to imagine why the farmers “voted with their feet” and sought alternatives to sustain their livelihoods and families when the industry began to collapse and the Pyrethrum Board held up payments. 

Government’s mission is aligned with investor appetite 

Kentegra’s ambition includes reaching as many Kenyans as it can economically. At least 200,000 small-holder farmers grew the crop at its peak, creating livelihoods for 2 million people while producing 18,000 metric tons a year, according to Kenya’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Authority. 

The crop has fallen precipitously to barely 500 tons a year, a drop of 97 percent. 

The private-sector interest has met with a positive reception from the government, as evidenced by the government-hosted investment presentation but also rejuvenated organisation among farmers on the ground.

In November, Nakuru County Governor Lee Kinyanjui announced that he and 16 other governors from pyrethrum-growing counties are planning to form an economic bloc to encourage production and lift farmers out of poverty.  

That’s a good sign because the government’s mission to create jobs and develop the country is aligned with investor appetite and commercial realities. 

Kentegra has forecast that demand for organic pyrethrins will double to about $7 billion over the next five years because the synthetic versions have been shown to have negative side effects.

If their experiment works and Kenya’s once-proud crop returns in force, the return on investment may metamorphose from pure profit into a new development model to replace long-criticized foreign aid practices.

- African News Agency (ANA)/