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Kenyan farmers set to reap from growing demand for aromatic herbs

November 21, 2013. Kenyan horticulturists could see a comeback in the market for aromatic herbs and this is due to two important factors: a growing demand for herbs on the export market and the agricultural reintroduction of indigenous herbal ingredients for Kenyan cuisine.

Many herbs are able to thrive in conditions under which other plants and vegetables are unable to grow including semi-arid regions, low rainfall areas and highland growing regions. As such, many Kenyan farmers are rediscovering that they have the ideal environment for producing valuable aromatic herbs.

Currently, herbs are under-supplied by Kenyan farmers but with a growing demand the domestic and export markets, and the perfect conditions to produce many of these products, aromatic herbs have the potential to be the next big thing in Kenyan horticulture.

European demand provides opportunities for Kenyan herb growers

Across Europe the demand for herbs is growing in the UK, for example, over the last decade there has been a large increase in people interested in home cookery and experimenting with culinary techniques and different cuisines, which has led to the demand for fresh herbs.

This has seen UK supermarkets turn their attention to Kenyan growers, seeking high quality herbs for import.

In the 1980s, many Kenyan farmers found that they had a lucrative export market for herbs in the East shipping their produce to the Indian herb and spice industry. This demand fell during the 1990s as much of this industry declined and many Kenyan farmers refocused on other plants and vegetables. The fortunes turned around after the turn of the 21st Century as Europe’s demand for herbs grew, and and herbal horticulturalists could once again cash in.

A great example of a herb providing opportunities for farmers is chives. Chives are an increasingly popular culinary ingredient in European cookery and since the early 2000’s demand has grown year-on-year.

Kenya’s climate is ideal to the growing of the Chive. Being a hardy herb, Chive’s are easy to grow in under greenhouse tunnels, they need no fertilizer, are resistant to drought, disease and pests and even have anti-pest qualities and are great for growing alongside other vegetable crops.

The one thing that chives do require for success is plenty of strong sunlight which, thankfully, is something there’s no shortage of in Kenya.

Aromatic herbs: perfect for Kenyan growing conditions

The opportunities available for Kenyan herb growers are further increased by the suitability of many of the country’s regions for growing herbs commercially including semi-arid areas, highland terrains and sunny, warm climates with low rainfall.

Herbs such as lavender, marjoram and sage are able to grow wild in relatively harsh conditions and can survive with a minimal amount of rain to meet their water needs – this means they are also easy to grow commercially using only natural rainfall.

Most herbs tend to mature after a couple of months so the cultivator just needs to time planting and growing to coincide with the rainy season and the crop should receive all the  rain they require for the year.

According to Josephine Nasimiyu of the Horticulture Crops Development Authority (HCDA), “Herbs are a domesticated crop and their wild nature makes them withstand harsh conditions. A herb such as a lavender is an insect repellent and that is a very important since it makes it a multipurpose plant”.

Apart from their medicinal value, herbs are used in cookery as spices and making herbal teas, and are a source of essential oils for use in aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is an ancient form of natural medicine but as the interest and application of aromatherapy as a natural therapy has increased over recent decades, particularly in Europe, and demand for herb production has multiplied.

Licensed Prescriptions states that, “the practice of aromatherapy today centers on the use of essential oils which come from plants. The oils are extracted from the leaves or flowers by distillation and then used to benefit the health and well-being of the ‘whole person’“.

Many of the herbs used in aromatherapy are suitable for the Kenyan climatic conditions and perhaps resourceful herb producers, in addition to supplying crops for international markets, could also manufacture the highly-valued essential oils that are used in aromatherapy and herbal medicine.

Domestic market for traditional herbs

Along with supplying aromatic herbs to international markets, some growers are finding that traditional herbs are returning in popularity on the domestic market. An important example of a traditional herb that is making a big comeback is the humble nettle.

Farmers traditionally grew large amounts of nettle in the fertile Mau forest in the Rift Valley, and small-scale producers are now finding that the crop can be successfully cultivated at altitude in highland regions and sold either fresh or dried on local markets in return for reasonably high profits.

The demand for nettle crop comes from several areas: it is a relatively cost effective and nutritious food so is ideal in institutions that need to feed large numbers of people such as schools, hospitals and homes for the elderly; the dried leaves can be ground down and used as a nourishing feed for farm animals; and with a growing trend for local cuisine in restaurants and hotels the nettle is an important indigenous ingredient for traditional Kenyan recipes.

Nettles can be grown by local communities and processed and sold in partnership with co-operatives so the producers share the profits, and the nettles are easy to grow alongside other farming such as vegetables and livestock. The nettle is just one small example of the many opportunities that are opening for Kenyan cultivators to reap the rewards of a growing demand for aromatic herbs.

By Melissa Lucas



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