Kenyan law enforcement struggles to protect precious avocado crops from gangs that want to steal it

The avocado sector in Kenya has become so profitable that organized crime syndicates have begun targeting those who grow the coveted fruit. A single avocado tree can produce fruits that can sell for $600, enough to pay for a high school student’s private education throughout the school year in the African country, according to the BBC.

With avocados in high demand in the US and Europe, Kenya overtook South Africa last year and became the largest exporter on the continent.

Thus emerged the groups of judges who protected the culture known as “Green Gold”.

At nightfall, on a fairly large farm in the central Muranga region, six young men in thick raincoats and carrying torches, machetes and batons begin.

They are hired to guard the farm and the valuable avocados.

It’s dangerous work, and people can be injured and even killed.

“It was either us or them, unfortunately, and we had to protect ourselves,” one told the BBC, referring to a recent incident in which a thief suspected of stealing avocados was killed.

The owner of the farm, which has an area of ​​\u200b\u200babout half a hectare, says that he had to act because he became a victim of thieves.

“You can put up a fence for the whole farm, but that won’t stop them,” he says, pointing to where the barbed wire was cut.

“You spend an entire season tending your crops, and then in one night all the fruit is stolen in a few hours,” he says.

Another judge fixing the fence agrees: “They’ll cut it down and steal whatever they want.”

He worries about how the community will suffer, given that most people live off trade – many work for those who have larger farms, while most families also have few trees.

“If we sleep, our fathers and mothers will not get a penny,” he says.

And their patrol will continue until dawn.

Avocados in Kenya are usually harvested between February and October – but thieves have also targeted the unripe fruit.

In an effort to curb the black market, the authorities imposed a ban on the export of fruit from November to the end of January.

But its impact is limited on the ground. Farmers like those in the Muranga region are forced to harvest early to save their crops from the avocado gangs.

Leaving fruit in the trees is just an invitation to thieves.

A farmer from Kandara, central Kenya, tends to his avocado tree crop (July 2018). Photo: Profimedia Images
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A farmer from Kandara, central Kenya, tends to his avocado tree crop (July 2018). Photo: Profimedia Images

flying drones

In Meru – about 100 kilometers to the north – the situation is much worse. BBC journalists are arriving in the region at the same time as European buyers.

This means that some avocado growers there, such as Kinyua Mburugu, are allowed to harvest early.

Thus, in one day, thousands of avocados are harvested from Hass. The price of the fruit is $0.17 each.

Avocados are evaluated for quality assurance at local distribution centers. If the fruits are picked too early, they will not ripen at all.

For Mborogo, the decision to harvest early was made to keep thieves away.

But in the future he intends to confront the gangs using a computer purchased through his local avocado co-op.

He will connect the computer to the CCTV cameras he has installed around his 4.04 hectare farm.

From his comfortable living room, he wants to see more than 200 mature trees with the help of his tech-savvy son, a film studies graduate.

“My son is considering using drones to monitor our farm 24/7,” says Mborogo.

Asked if it was too expensive, the man replied: “No, no … the savings justify everything.”

crowd justice

While the farmer was speaking to a BBC reporter, court staff arrested a few men who had rented a house in central Meru, part of a fruit-stealing gang.

Later, Julius Kinotti, who leads the neighborhood guard team, says they discovered that bags of stolen avocado filled the house.

They reported it to the police, but he also warned that the authorities should do more on the issue, given that people are doing their justice.

“The night these thieves caught, if I sounded the siren alert the people, the villagers would have come and killed them—the justice of the crowd—because the people are angry.”

The avocado trade in Kenya is still in its infancy, but more and more farmers are deciding to invest in this fruit.

The fruits last year brought farmers $132 million from exporting about 10% of the crop, according to the Commerce Department.

“If we ensure quality control, we will definitely reach the peak of big producers like Peru and Brazil,” Mborogo added.

“In the next five years, I don’t think many people here will have tea plantations. Avocado is the way to go.”

The farmer cleared his tea crops a few years ago. It’s a move he doesn’t regret, but only hopes he can keep the gangs at bay.

Editor: AC

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