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Kenya fights threat to nut cash crop

Joseph Ndirangu Muriithi, 55, a former coffee farmer in central Kenya who now looks to his 45 macadamia trees for his economic survival, says he's lost three of the trees to the disease already.
by Staff Writers
Nairobi, Kenya (UPI) Aug 25, 2010
A tree disease threatens the livelihood of farmers in Kenya who grow macadamia nuts, their only cash crop after the coffee market crashed, officials say.

The coffee boom of the 1970s and 1980s ended when the Kenyan government failed to protect coffee farmers from middlemen, who pay farmers as little as 25 cents for 2 pounds of coffee worth up to $10 in the European market, and many coffee planters turned to macadamia trees as their salvation, Inter Press Service reported Wednesday.

It is estimated that more than 10,000 Kenyan farmers have switched to farming macadamia as a cash crop mainly for the export market.

Now they face a new worry, a fungal disease attacking their nut trees.

Joseph Ndirangu Muriithi, 55, a former coffee farmer in central Kenya who now looks to his 45 macadamia trees for his economic survival, says he's lost three of the trees to the disease already.

But research scientist Jesca Mbaka has the interests of macadamia farmers at heart.

"With support from other scientists and organizations, we hope to bring the disease into total control as soon as possible. Farmers must never lose hope on this big cash crop," Mbaka, who is based at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, said.

While completing her studies at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, Mbaka discovered that there is only one type of the pathogen affecting macadamia and other trees in Kenya.

"There is a growing prevalence of two main diseases namely root rot, and stem canker -- both caused by the fungus Phytophthora cinnamomi," Mbaka said.

"This means that we can easily tackle it based on the existing knowledge," she said.

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