The international trade in hay has seen a steady rise in recent years. This has been due to an increase in meat and milk consumption, lack of suitable arable land and unfavorable weather in importing countries e.g. China and Japan.
Depletion of underground water resources in the Gulf countries, have made them abandon irrigated hay. But in a region (and at a time) where the oil dollar can buy and fulfill any fantasy – be it top breed race horses or mega dairy farms – the area leads as a big importer of hay.
While Lucerne is the preferred hay in the export market due to its high protein content, there is still a market for grass hays e.g. Rhodes Grass – which is now commonly grown in Kenya.
Kenyan traders are angling for the Rhodes Grass hay export, and thanks to my easily-found contact in this hay blog, they often reach out to me with very good hay tenders.
Indeed, I can tell through the incoming phone calls – now saved under my ever-expanding Hay Exp group – when a hay tender has been issued, especially from the Gulf region.
Some of the callers openly berate me for lacking enthusiasm for the lucrative tenders, especially when they swear by hay that they will pay me in dollars once consignment is delivered.
But the cake goes to the exporters team of K….. and M…… (fill the dots with male names from the slopes). They came to the farm accompanied by their hay contact from the “Gulf”, who looked the part in wrap-around sunglasses and decked with jewelry to the tips of his fingers.
As a testament to the oil dollar, he drove a fuel guzzler through mud just like a very experienced Kenyan bush driver – quite a feat for someone who had landed in Nairobi the previous night.
Oh, and our Gulf man – apparently a well traveled international trader – didn’t understand any English, so K and M cautioned me to keep the conversation in Kikuyu. There was not a red flag that this team did not raise. For for me it was street school 101. But I digress.
What shocks me is the ease that potential exporters associate with the international hay market. And my opinion is informed by an internship decades ago in a horticultural exporting company where I wore out my shoes inspecting, grading and packing French beans for export.
Even with all this diligence, on several occasions beans were returned on the “next flight”, after rejection at entry points by the importing country’s regulatory agency.
And guess who was the appointed bearer of the bad news to the farmers – who had not only invested a lot into the crop but had also done a lot of back breaking work? Yours truly, the young intern!
But I strongly believe that Kenya can get into the Rhodes Grass hay export market because of the following:
1) We are geographically well located to export hay to the Gulf region, since we can take advantage of the inexpensive ocean transport system mainly created by the return freight of ships offloading at Mombasa.
2) We have plenty of arable land in ASALs, which with good farming practices can support large scale and mechanized Rhodes Grass hay production to meet the international hay tenders.
3) With the lessons learnt in cargo movement during the Covid-19 crisis, many countries will want to have full control of their food production which could drive an increase in the import of Rhodes Grass for beef/ milk production in the Gulf.
However, we need to be cognizant that the Rhodes Grass hay export market is competitive, with the USA, Canada and Pakistan being the main players.
There are also set standards on hay nutritional values, zero tolerance on vectors, weeds and disease-causing organisms e.g. molds caused by poor drying.
The standards are required to protect the interlinked animal, human and ecological welfare, which can be easily messed up by contaminated agriculture food crops.
For example, the seemingly innocuous stems of an invasive succulent weed can lay inert in hay bales, only to vigorously spring back to life once it is in contact with nutrient-rich cattle slurry.
Hay can also be a carrier for mites, which can cause skin disease in livestock animals.
Moldy hay can affect not only the health and productivity of livestock animals but it can be a source of aflotoxins in milk, posing a risk to consumers.
It is worth noting that these standards can’t be captured in pictures, regardless of the phone specifications.
So how do we successfully navigate the hay export market? We are fortunate that we have a renowned history of exporting agricultural food crops e.g. French beans, under the watchful eye of well established institutions such as Kephis and HCDA. These bodies can guide the hay export sector to ensure that it conforms to all international standards.
While we must applaud hay traders for identifying international markets, to let them play unregulated based on hay pictures, nutritional tests that do not match the hay consignments or weights that may not meet tendering specifications could soon lead to the country getting blacklisted for infringements.
If fear can be an added incentive, it’s important to note that infringements particularly based on the presence of diseases, pests and weeds, lead to a unilateral product ban for the whole country and not just the offending trader.
An example is the current ban on export of Kenyan mangoes to the lucrative European and US markets due to a fruit fly infestation.
The recently launched campaign to eradicate fruit fly – Komesha: Zuia Fruit Fly Ufaidike by Makueni County in collaboration with USAID – is proof that it takes a lot of effort, time and money to clear up a bad name.
It is therefore important for authorities to step into the hay export sector when it is still in its nascent stage, to avoid losing opportunities that would benefit small scale growers.
Just like with horticultural produce for export, most Rhodes Grass hay in Kenya is grown by small scale farmers, many who have been drawn to the crop on the premise that hay is easy to grow.
To this “ease”, add the telephone hay farmer and the baling contractor, who with no liability is the ultimate decider on when and how the hay is harvested. This cocktail should give any potential hay exporter an insight into why blind loading of hay into a container could be a high risk venture.
The horticulture export sector has grown because there is a tri-party relationship of the small holder farmer who keenly watches over his crops 24/7, exporters and regulatory authorities.
The exporters establish contracts with small holder growers and also liaise with regulatory authorities (Kephis) who keep them updated with any changes in protocols in the importing countries e.g. pesticide residues or a pest alert.
Using their agronomists on the ground they (exporters) sensitize farmers on recommended and prohibited inputs, and offer technical services – from best management practices, guidance in harvesting, post-harvest care and packaging.
Whenever this relationship is infiltrated by middlemen (brokers) who only appear at the harvesting time with cash-on-the-spot deals, quality is compromised and regrettably this results in a ban of the produce from the whole country.
A recent example is the 2019 avocado export ban due to immature fruits.
Does this tri-party relationship exist in the hay export trade? Beyond loading hay into containers, are hay exporters aware and in control of the hay production? Could there be an assumption that hay does not fall under the category of agricultural produce and is therefore exempted from standards requirements?
Getting the right answers to these questions will decide if Kenya can successfully get into the hay export market or will be marked out as a pariah exporter due to the behaviors of a few rogue traders.
With the exception of K… , M… and their ilk, for consultation on Rhodes Grass hay export, contact the blog writer;
Anne, Tel: 0725-520627