Page last updated at 23:30 GMT, Wednesday, 9 July 2008 00:30 UK

In search of the perfect cash crop

By Wycliffe Muga
Mombasa, Kenya

Coffee beans
Coffee made people rich in the 1970s but little has succeeded since then

If I were asked what our great national goal is in Kenya, I would say that it is the search for the perfect cash crop.

And I suppose this would also be the goal for many African countries:

If most of your national population live in rural areas and you are realistic enough to appreciate that dreams of creating enough jobs through industrialization are not likely to come true then you will sooner or later arrive at this question:

What is there that a small scale farmer can grow on approximately five acres of land that would enable him to provide for his family?

And at different times, we have seen a variety of cash crops offer the promise of an answer to this question.

Memories of coffee

Most spectacular was coffee in the mid-1970s.

Owing to a sudden frost in Brazil in 1975 which damaged millions of coffee trees in the plantations of the world's largest coffee producer, there was a monumental rise in coffee prices which lasted for years.

During that period, being a small scale coffee farmer ensured a better income than employment in most professions in Kenya.

Farmers who could barely afford shoes for their children a few years earlier were suddenly able to afford small cars.

Those who owned large coffee plantations became outright millionaires. Coffee was referred to locally as black gold.

But as production went up, prices went down

It was not only Kenyan coffee farmers who had overestimated the value of owning coffee trees. Vietnam increased its coffee production tenfold between 1980 and 2000.

Although it was plain enough that this windfall was purely accidental - and the result of climatic factors many thousands of miles away - the sudden prosperity of coffee farmers was seen as proof that small scale agriculture could indeed be a highly profitable venture, provided you had the right cash crop at the right time.

Kenyans have since then been devoutly searching for the next big thing in small scale agriculture.

We have had cashew nuts, macadamia nuts, vanilla, silk worms, eucalyptus trees for export to the treeless Middle East and many others - promoted at one time or another as the salvation of the Kenyan small scale farmer.

Domestic focus

Right now, the focus is on various crops said to have oil-bearing seeds which can be used to produce bio-diesel.

But so far, none of these have led to the sort of incomes witnessed in the glory days of the coffee boom.

Vegetable market in Nairobi
Kenya's farmers are having to focus more on domestic needs

And with the recent increase in global food prices having made groceries more expensive, farmers are now more concerned with growing indigenous food crops to feed their families, than with exotic export crops which cannot be eaten if the international demand for these should collapse.

Indeed, the only small scale farmers in Kenya who have been able to regain the prosperity of the 1970s are coffee growers whose land happened to be near some urban centre.

Those living around Central Province, which is the most densely populated part of Kenya, benefited most from the pressure for new homes and demand for land.

In recent years, coffee trees have been uprooted in such areas and the farms subdivided and converted to residential plots which are then sold off at a huge profit.

So while the romance of the perfect crop lives on, the reality of economic survival - and the pragmatism it engenders - is never far away.

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