On September 15 2008, Lehman Brothers, a giant US investment bank, went bust precipitating a global financial emergency. Three days later, Hank Paulson, the US Treasury Secretary accompanied by the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, addressed the US parliament with a stark message. If they did not authorize a 700 billion dollar bank bailout, the financial system would implode. By October 8, another large economy, the United Kingdom, had announced an 800 billion dollar rescue package for its own financial industry. Iceland, a nation with a population just shy of 360,000 people and heavily dependent on financial services for its economy, went bankrupt.
Until these events, ‘Lehman brothers’ meant nothing to Kairo Kiarie. However, the persistent news of the snowballing contagion of that crash in the US was about to hit home. At the time, he farmed two legumes; sugar snaps and snow peas for sale in the UK market. It was not his first foray into agriculture. He had cut his teeth with cabbages and to fantastic harvests, only to see his ‘young millionaire’ dreams shipwrecked by a combination of a glut in supply, and the willy hands of vegetable brokers. It has been a bitter pill, and he had done well to learn the lessons. Data was vital; when to plant, how to plant, and importantly, someone to buy the product.
Sugar snaps (Pisum sativum var. Macrocarpon ) and snow peas (Pisum sativum var. Saccharum) do not evoke a culinary picture in the minds of Kenyans. Both crops are a variety of the garden pea, commonly called ‘Minji’ by Kenyans. Garden peas are so popular that the tedious task of hand-shelling the pods is a daily pastime, with children roped in to help (to their great annoyance). For snow peas and sugar snaps, it is the unripe pods that are consumed. They are neither a staple nor a sought after ingredient to any common Kenyan meal. Both crops are grown to satisfy the western markets where they command a healthy market share among vegetables. The fertile soils of Njambini, coupled with its cool climatic conditions, are perfect for their cultivation. Certified seeds are readily available. The crop requires dedication for it to pay off; pest control against aphids is essential, as is controlling fungal infections during the cold and warm seasons. For these pod-like vegetables, the aesthetics of the final product are just as important as the yield. The discerning buyer in Europe combines fickleness with a hard bargain.
Snow peas and sugar snaps were a bit more capital intensive to grow. To Kairo’s delight, a trial run on one acre of land was a runaway success. He had hit a gusher. The crop was harvested twice a week with sugar snaps fetching higher prices despite having lower yield. At the time, Kairo sold his produce to an exporter called John. He was, in essence, an ‘out-grower’ for John. John was both a farmer and aggregator. His business base was in a go-down in Nairobi’s industrial area from where he received produce from out-growers and aggregated these for export to buyers in the United Kingdom. It was a brisk business due to the perishable nature of the commodity.
After two planting seasons, and flush with cash, Kairo was ready to scale. But something was niggling him at the back of his mind. Like with cabbage before, he did not have reliable local data of when was the best time to grow the crop. On one occasion, the prices suddenly dropped because the growers in the southern African country of Zimbabwe had hit full harvest. Unlike in Kenya, where smallholder farmers account for most of snow pea and sugar snap cultivation, Zimbabweans enterprises are on a large scale. Similarly, there was competition from growers in Egypt who enjoyed the advantage of proximity to Europe by being a canal ride away. These two nations could undercut Kenyan growers. However, Kenya’s saving grace would be her unique quality. With time, it emerged that the big money months were January to March. To satisfy the aggregator’s demands during those months, Kairo, ever business savvy, began aggregating from other farmers to supply ‘his guy, John’ in Nairobi. It was 2007, and things were looking up.
International mediation helped restore sanity. On February 28 2008, the two main protagonists, the incumbent president Mwai Kibaki, and his main rival Raila Odinga signed the instruments for a coalition government that set the country on a recovery path. Kenyans embraced this outcome, nicknaming it ‘nusu mkate’ government (meaning ‘half-a-loaf’ government). The roadblocks and pillaging that had characterized that tumultuous period made way for free movement and farm activities. It seemed that the year would not be lost after all. Soon enough Kairo was hauling two-tonne consignments of sugar snaps and snow peas to Nairobi for sale. But unknown to him, there was a sickness in the global economy. On March 15, Lehman Brothers, a financial services juggernaut founded in 1847 crashed. By the time it was sold for a song a few weeks later, the only things of tangible value were its headquarters building and art collection. The carnage that ensued in the global financial markets was unprecedented. These events reached Kenya and hit Kairo’s livelihood most suddenly.
No buyers meant no flights to export the produce. Lehman brothers had crashed and with it spread a contagion that touched every sector of the global economy. Suddenly, nobody wanted snow peas or sugar snaps any more. There was no money. Kenyans do not consume these legumes. Stuck with tonnes of the crop, Kairo tried feeding his cows with the pods but to no avail. Eventually, the only option was to dig a pit and compost the pods. The bullet that had assassinated his dream had been fired 12,000 kilometres away, in the United States of America. The market would not recover that year. This was an example of how a farmer does absolutely nothing wrong but still pays the price. In the definition of Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan theory; they had been hit by a significant impact event beyond the realm of rational expectations that conventional wisdom said could not happen. 2008 was rough. After trying a host of other short-cycle crops that could find buyers in the country Kairo’s farming journey drifted to another crop. To be continued…
Action Box Snow peas and sugar snaps are legumes which grow well in most soils except clays which can get waterlogged. Generally, cold climate areas (12-20°c) and with altitudes between 1500-2600 m above the sea level are suitable. Use certified seed. Some popular varieties are Oregon Sugar Pod II, Sweet Horizon or Snow Wind which are supplied by Hygrotech, Amiran or Syngenta. The main pest threats are aphids, thrips, pea weevils and cutworms. All these pests can be controlled using pesticides. Controlling these pests reduces the risk of viral diseases such as Pea seed-borne mosaic virus. Be wary of fungal diseases. During the cold season, downey mildew is the main threat. As the weather warms up, powdery mildew becomes the more significant issue. Ensure you use the right fungicides. Snow peas make an excellent commercial crop- even for smallholder farmers. An acre piece of land can produce up to 200-400Kgs of fresh snow peas per week. To export approach vegetable exporters such as Homegrown, Idu Farm, Wamu Enterprises, Everest Enterprises and Kenya Horticultural Exporters Ltd. Excellent resources on snow peas have been authored by Green Life, Daniel "Coach Dan" Muguko and Kenya fruit exporters.