Green gold: Kenyan farmers abandon food crops

KANYUAMBORA — At this time of year, Albert Njeru’s farm would usually be blanketed with shoulder-high rows of maize.

But not anymore. Now the fields of grain are gone, replaced by two acres (0,80 hectares) of bushy green muguka leaves, a potent legal stimulant that relieves fatigue.

“Muguka gives me a lot of money. Farming maize or beans used to give me losses,” the 45-year-old farmer at his home in Kanyuambora, a village in central Kenya said.

As drought and erratic weather wreak havoc across rural Kenya, a growing number of farmers are abandoning traditional crops like maize and rice for the more lucrative muguka.

Njeru can make 30 000 Kenyan shillings ($290) in just one week selling muguka — five times more than he used to make selling maize or beans.

“It is green gold,” he said.

A variety of khat, which produces a mild high when chewed, muguka is fast-growing, making it less vulnerable to large swings in weather conditions, and uses about half as much water as maize, Njeru explained.

The strain grown in Embu county, home to Njeru’s farm, is strong and so consumers can buy less than with the other popular variety, miraa, which is grown further north in Meru.

That is good news for muguka producers like Njeru, who said he was struggling to cultivate enough to keep up with demand.

But it is bad news for food supplies, said agriculture experts and local politicians, who warned of a potential food crop shortage as farmers clear their fields of staples to make way for muguka.

“Farmers are not interested in growing maize anymore. They want money in their pockets. Muguka is giving them that and a lot more, since they can use the
profits to buy more nutritious food,” Martin Mwangi, a member of Embu county’s assembly said.

“But the long-term consequences could lead to food insecurity due to reduced production.”

He pointed to neighbouring Kirinyaga county, where farmers are known for growing Kenya’s highest-quality rice.

“Water used for irrigating rice is now being diverted into muguka fields,” he cautioned.

There is no official record of how many farmers have switched from growing food crops to muguka, said Mwangi.

Nor is there data on how much land is being used for muguka, according to Kenya’s Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA).

But Francis Kimori, chairman of the Mbeere Muguka Farmers Sacco, a savings and credit co-operative, estimated four out of every five households around the
Mount Kenya region, including in Embu county, are farming the stimulant in some quantity.

Many have upgraded from mud huts to modern stone houses, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“It is changing livelihoods,” he added.

Factors like failing rains and new pests, linked to climate change, have likely played a role in muguka’s popularity at the expense of time-honoured crops such
as maize, Dickson Kibata, a technical officer at the AFA said.

Yet despite the extra income muguka brings, Kibata warned against relying solely on the narcotic plant.

“Cash-crop farming cannot be the silver bullet that will pull farmers out of poverty, because consumption patterns keep changing,” he said.

“My advice to muguka farmers is to mix it with food crop farming to ensure the family food basket is secure, even as they look for money.”

Environmentalists and lawmakers have also voiced concerns over the impact of the stimulant cultivation boom on forests.

Every few months, the Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka community conservation group in Tharaka Nithi county reports several locals illegally growing an edible form of
cannabis known as bhang in local forests, its chairman Ngai M’Uboro said.

He expects it is only a matter of time before he and his colleagues start uncovering muguka farming in the area.

“If the forest is already suffering because of grazing and bhang, it will not be long before we see muguka growing in the forest,” he said.

Muguka’s potency was also making the authorities uncomfortable. In 2018, legislators in Mombasa and Kwale counties lobbied unsuccessfully for a sales and
consumption ban on muguka over fears of addiction among young people.

The National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse supported the move, citing social and health worries.

“Muguka is worse than hard drugs because of its highly addictive nature. It is ruining homes, the country’s youth and should be banned,” Victor Okioma, its
chief executive said.

Yet, even with all the risks attached to muguka, many Kenyan farmers are hoping it will save their livelihoods.

Along a 300km (185-mile) stretch of cropland from the edges of the capital Nairobi to the lowlands opening into northern Kenya, maize farmers have been
struggling with drought.

Purity Muthoni, 32, a farmer from Kiriani village in central Kenya, said she would not hesitate to switch to muguka if she could. But the weather and soils
where she lives, some 150km from Njeru, are not suitable for growing the plant, she said.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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