Onion prices in Kenya have surged to unprecedented levels, creating concerns over affordability and accessibility for consumers across the country. The spike in prices is primarily attributed to poor harvests and reduced imports from Tanzania, two factors that have contributed to a severe shortage of this staple food item.
In Kajiado County, the heart of onion production in Kenya, the price of small-size onions has increased sixfold within the past week. Previously sold at a rate of five onions for Ksh10, these onions are now being traded at Ksh20 per piece. The acute price increase has prompted consumers to alter their buying habits, opting to purchase onions in smaller quantities or seek alternatives due to budget constraints.
The scarcity is further exacerbated by the fact that onion traders are struggling to procure sufficient quantities of the produce. Some traders are resorting to selling other items such as tomatoes and cowpeas, which are more abundant in supply. The situation highlights the profound impact of onion shortages on market dynamics, forcing traders to diversify their offerings to meet customer demand.
Farmers and traders have revealed that the poor harvests are a direct result of low-quality seeds that were introduced to the market. Onion farmers were enticed by the lower price of these seeds, but the gamble backfired, resulting in substantial losses. Some farmers did not harvest any onions at all, while those who did were met with smaller-sized produce, leading to diminished supply.
Peter Mula, an onion farmer from the Acacia area, explained that farmers purchased the subpar onion seeds for Ksh12,000 per kg, a fraction of the usual cost of Ksh30,000 per kg. Mula emphasized the devastating impact of these poor seeds, resulting in minimal to no harvest and considerable financial setbacks for farmers.
“The acute onion shortage is a result of lack of bumper harvest. We planted the new seedling but we have ended up harvesting nothing,” said Peter.
Farmers also expressed their frustration with the lack of accountability from the seed supplier. Despite the significant losses incurred by farmers, the company behind the seeds claimed that the sales were voluntary and absolved themselves of any responsibility.
The shortage of locally produced onions has forced Kenya to rely heavily on imports from neighboring Tanzania. However, even these imports have become scarce, contributing to the drastic price increases. Onions that were previously sold at Ksh30 to Ksh40 per kilogram now fetch a price of Ksh180 per kilogram, highlighting the severity of the shortage.
Traders are feeling the impact of the shortage firsthand, with some facing the challenge of sourcing onions for their businesses. Wholesale supplies of onions are also scarce, pushing traders to adapt and diversify their product offerings to keep their businesses afloat.
The crisis in the onion market extends beyond Kajiado County, affecting other regions as well. Nyeri County, known for its extensive onion farming, has experienced a similar scenario due to low rainfall that deterred onion cultivation. Additionally, taxes imposed on imports from Tanzania have contributed to the scarcity of onions, causing prices to triple within a matter of months.
As the shortage persists, consumers are left grappling with the consequences of reduced supply and skyrocketing prices. Farmers and traders alike are advocating for better quality seeds and improved agricultural practices to mitigate the risk of future crop failures. The situation underscores the delicate balance between affordability, agricultural practices, and the overall stability of the market.
While the current challenges are substantial, the Kenyan agricultural sector has the potential to bounce back with strategic interventions aimed at ensuring a consistent and reliable supply of essential commodities like onions. As stakeholders collaborate to address the root causes of the shortage, the hope remains that improved practices will prevent such crises in the future, safeguarding the livelihoods of farmers and ensuring food security for all in Kenya.