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Behold Kenyan vigilantes taking on avocado gangs

Behold Kenyan vigilantes taking on avocado gangs

Behold Kenyan vigilantes taking on avocado gangs

Kenya’s avocado sector is now so profitable that arranged criminal gangs have started targeting growers.

This is due to the fruit from just one tree can pay for the private education of a secondary school student for a whole year – up to $600 (£450).

With the increasing demand for the fruit in the US and Europe, Kenya outdistance South Africa last year to emerge the continent’s top avocado exporter.

Vigilante groups are now being organised to protect the crop, otherwise known as “green gold”.

As night falls on a fairly large farm in the central county of Murang’a, six young men dressed in thick raincoats and armed with torches, machetes and clubs start their shift.

They have been engaged to guard the farm and its valuable avocados.

It is a life threatening work – and people can get hurt and unexpectedly killed.

Farmers are having to harvest early in order to save their crops from the thieves

“It was either us or them unfortunately and we had to protect ourselves,”

one of them tells us, making reference to the latest incident in which a suspected avocado thief was killed.

The owner of the farm, which is approximately half an acre – or half the size of a football pitch, says he has had to take action as he has fallen victim to the thieves.

“You can fence the entire farm but that won’t stop them,”

he says, showing us where his barbed wire fence has been cut.

“You spend an entire season taking care of your crops, then in a single night all your fruits are stolen in a matter of hours.”

One more of the vigilantes who is repairing the fence concurs:

“They’ll still cut it and steal what they want.”

He frets how the community will suffer as nearly all people survive on the trade – many work for those with bigger farms, at the same time most families as well have a couple of trees themselves.

“If we sleep, our fathers and mothers won’t have a cent,” he says.

Their watch will end at dawn.

Avocados incline to be harvested in Kenya between February and October – notwithstanding the thieves have been attacking the unripe fruit.

In an attempt to clamp down on the black market, the authorities have forced a ban on exporting avocados from November till the end of January.

Even so it is having little effect on the ground – in actual fact farmers like those in Murang’a county are having to harvest early in order to save their crop from the avocado cartels.

Leaving them on the trees is straightforwardly a request to the thieves.

Flying drones
In Meru county – approximately 100km (60 miles) further north – the circumstance is much worse. We arrive as European buyers are in the area.

This means some avocado farmers there, are permitted to harvest early.

Therefore in a single day, thousands of hectares of Hass avocados are picked, selling for up to 19 Kenyan shillings ($0.17, £0.12) each.

The avocados are evaluated to ensure quality at the local distribution centre – since if picked too early the fruit will not ripen at all.
In the next five years, I don’t think many people here will have tea farms. Avocados are the way to go”
Avocado farmer
For Mr Mburugu, the resolution to pick early was taken to keep the thieves at bay.

Nevertheless in the future he plans to take on the gangs by using a computer purchased through his local avocado co-operative society.

He will get it connected to CCTV cameras that he is putting up around his 10-acre (4.04-hectare) farm.

From the comfort of his living room, he plans to keep on eye on his over 200 mature trees, assisted by his tech-savvy son, a film studies graduate.

“My son is thinking of flying drones around so we can have 24/7 surveillance of our farm,”

Mr Mburugu says.

“Isn’t that expensive?” I ask.

“No, no… the savings will justify everything.”

Mob justice
As we speak, he receives a phone call. The vigilantes have caught several men who rented a house in the centre of Meru town, part of the cartel stealing fruit.

Lorena Flores says she joined CUSEPT because she no longer wanted to face extortion

On patrol with Mexico’s avocado police

CUSEPT has its own uniforms and badges

Members of CUSEPT have got modern weapons and equipment

Later, Julius Kinoti, who heads the neighbourhood watch security team, says they found that the house was full of sacks of stolen avocados.

They alert the police but he warns the authorities need to do more about the problem as people could take matters into their own hands.

“That night we caught those thieves, if I had blown the whistle to alert people, villagers would have come and would have killed them – mob justice – because people are angry.”

Kenya’s avocado trade is still in its infancy, but more and more farmers are deciding to invest in avocados.

Last year, the fruit earned Kenyans farmers $132m (£100m) from exporting about 10% of the harvested crop, according to the trade ministry.

“If we ensure quality control, we will definitely reach the heights of the big producers like Peru and Brazil,”

says Mr Mburugu.

“In the next five years, I don’t think many people here will have tea farms. Avocados are the way to go.”

He uprooted his fields of tea a few years ago – it is not a move he regrets, he just hopes he can keep the avocado cartels at bay.

Avocados are the main business in Tancítaro

The avocado’s reputation as a healthy food has fuelled its popularity

Kenyan farmer Peter Kariuki says avocados are a lucrative and low-maintenance crop

If you’re a lover of guacamole, chocolate avocado shakes or smashed avocado on toast, get ready to pay more for your fix of the green fruit.

Avocado trees are an alternate-bearing crop, which means harvests differ in size each year

Avocado exports from Kenya have shot up in recent years

More on the business of avocados:

Kenyans cash in on avocado craze
The avocado police protecting Mexico’s green gold
Holy guacamole! Avocado prices surge

Kenya,     Agriculture

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