Tiny pricey onions making consumers cry

When we went to get “mayai pasua” from our roadside vendor the other day, something odd hit me. While looking at the freshly prepared bowl of kachumbari in front of us, it was clear that our “mayai pasua” plug had little to no onions in it.

We did not raise our concerns immediately, because, who asks “wapi kitunguu?” This is especially tougher when there’s a notable presence of well-dressed people waiting in line for their turn. We wandered away chatting among ourselves wondering how absurd it was only for our more enlightened colleague to interject, citing that there is onion shortage in Kenya.

Our colleague, who has been to the market more frequently, said she noticed vendors had very little onion stocks which were selling very expensively. “I got there to find only a few people selling onion. For those selling, even they themselves had very little that they were selling,” she said.

A spot-check by Maudhui House shows Kenyans are grappling with high cost of onions. The prices for the vegetable has shot up by 88 percent from Kes80 to Kes150 a kilo depending on size. Short supply from Tanzania and the after effects the recent drought are to blame for the depressed supplies.

When I went to the market, I was shocked when I heard the price. Last time I checked, five medium sized onions were retailing at Kes20. But now, I not only have to buy three but which are smaller in size at the same price. So if I was getting this right, the size changed, the number changed but the price was the same? I am basically buying less for more.

Onion prices on the rise

The big onions that used to go for Kes10 or 15 are now going for Kes25 each.  I was convinced that this vendor and this country’s economy wanted to get rid of me, but I wouldn’t let them. I ended up deciding to go round the market in search of better but eventually I had to come back to the initial vendor  because the others were worse. It was a very humbling moment.

While Kenyan consumers prefer Tanzanian onions because they are cheaper and bigger, short supplies from the southern neighbor is sending prices off the roof.

So I asked mama mboga why there were few onions and she said “Saa hii hakuna vitunguu customer, hata sisi hatupati faida nzuri but tunakuja kuuza tu ndio nyinyi pia msikose” Said mama mboga. At this point, I obviously had more questions than answers.

Kenyan farmers produce onions two quarters per year, from January to March and August to October. That means Kenyan onions are scarce in May every year because farmers harvest their produce in February in preparation for the March-April rains.

This poses a challenge for most traders as customers expect a continuous supply of the product. This is where Tanzania comes in. Production there is all-year-round making it a more stable and better option to supply its onions in Kenya.

Kenya also sources most of its onions from neighbors Tanzania due to the size and the breeds cultivated by the neighbors. Most Tanzanian farmers don’t plant Hybrid seeds. They select seeds for propagation from the harvested crop. These method is also believed to dry up the onions better making them of a higher quality.

Their large acreages allow large scale planting and production which is better in comparison to smallholder farming which is the case here in Kenya. Kenyan farmers wonder what makes Tanzanian onions popular with the local consumers and why they are also cheaper.

Good quality onions

Local consumers prefer Tanzanian onions because the drop from the neighbouring country benefits from cheaper costs of production. This translates into cheaper prices, stable supply all year round of good quality onions since they are well dried assuring dealers of better shelf-life.

The lower cost of production makes the onions from Tanzania sell at cheaper prices than their Kenyan competitors, essentially making more locals drawn to the product to try and save their hard earned cash. However in recent months, Tanzanian onion prices have gone up to Kes115/120 per kilogram up from Kes30/40 per kilogram.

This shortage is attributable to recent measures that have been put in an effort to try to shield local farmers from external competitors. Tanzanians are pushing for auctions to get better bargains for onions even raising issues with Kenyan buyers leasing land in the country to plant onions for export.

It is also coming out that over the last year, some farmers in Tanzania went for maize farming due to the increase in flour prices. Maybe to try to make a profit off Kenya or try to cushion themselves in case their flour prices decide to fluctuate too.

Over time Tanzania has gained a lot of influence in the onion markets in Kenya even more than that of its local farmers and gradually becoming the preferred option among locals. 

However, we also have local producers of onions in areas with hot and dry climates. Regions such as Naivasha, Kajiado, Meru, Oloitoktok and Kieni are some of the most notable producers. However, the cultivation depends on rains and recent drought ruffled the production patterns.

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Onion shortage in Kenya

The current local onion shortage is also attributable to the farmers failing to plant the crop last year due to the shortage in rainfall. Most of these farmers are smallholder farmers and depend on rain fed agricultural production.

Over the last year there has been an acute shortage in rainfall due to the adverse climatic conditions. This was over and above the natural shortage usually expected from May to mid-August due to the onion production seasons.

On top of that, the previous year has also seen many local farmers move away from onion farming to more profitable crops such as wheat, cabbage, maize and potatoes  especially due to the poor market prices.

These conditions were influenced by their Tanzanian competitors, who flood the market and had cheaper product. For a little over two years, local farmers have to accept prices from as low as Kes20-30 per Kg and sometimes settle for throwaway prices in order to sell the produce at a loss rather than let it rot. Some have since abandoned the crop.

In addition, as the cost of life is still rising, so has the cost of production for onions. To get 500g of Lucet onion seedlings, farmers have to part with approximately Kes17,000. Kieni farmer James Wambugu says it requires at least Kes100,000 to grow onions on one acre of land. That in itself is discouraging considering the cost of production becomes greater than the returns.

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