Every evening outside the packing houses and cold stores scattered throughout the industrial estates close to Nairobi’s main airport, piles of French beans, sugar snap and snow peas, broccoli, baby corn, asparagus and other vegetables are dumped.

Some of it is sold cheap, by the kilo, as cattle fodder or to canners, but much is simply left to rot.

There is little wrong with the vegetables - perhaps the beans are a bit thick or too curvy, or the seeds in a snow pea are overly pronounced - but they don’t comply with stringent cosmetic standards enforced by British supermarkets, so these Kenyan vegetables are rejected and left to waste. Adding to the veg not deemed up to scratch is the stuff that’s dumped simply because an order has been changed, which happens frequently and at short notice, often between picking and packing.

“The truth is, if it is rejected by the supermarkets it is wasted,” says the operations director of a mid-sized exporter, who does not want to be identified, fearing that the contracts he relies on - along with his dozens of employees and hundreds of farmers - might be cancelled if he is seen to question the system. “We honestly lose a lot by this strictness.”

You only have to extrapolate from this example to get a sense of the sheer scale of the problem. The operations director, who supplies a handful of UK supermarkets, estimates he loses a third of his produce between picking and shipping: that’s roughly 2.5 tonnes of vegetables discarded every week at this small packing warehouse alone.

Waste not want not

VP Group (formerly known as Vegpro) is one of Kenya’s largest vegetable exporters with a farming land base of 2,500 hectares and average weekly exports of 220 tonnes.

The company is actively seeking ways to use the food waste that its operation generates and has already achieved some impressive results, according to operations director Johnnie McMillan. “There isn’t one kilo of food that goes in the bin,” he claims.

Vegetables that fall short of export standards, but which are considered fit for human consumption - up to seven tonnes of vegetables per week - are given away to 15 orphanages and charities for the elderly in and around Nairobi.

Vegetables unfit for humans are sold to local farmers as cattle feed. Any remaining waste vegetables are composted for use as fertiliser.

Next up, the company plans to build a 2MW bio-energy plant that will use vegetable waste from the fields to power the farm.

VP Group expects its Biojoule digestion plant to be producing enough power for its own needs by next year. Any surplus power generated will be sold into the national grid.

Despite the levels of waste involved in the farming process, McMillan believes the solution is not to drop standards on supermarket shelves, but to fully utilise what cannot be exported.

“Produce standards in British retail are the best in the world and dropping those standards isn’t the answer,” he says.

“We should be maximising crop utilisation on the farms and in the shops by exploring other product lines, rather than reducing the quality of the top-tier products,” adds McMillan.

“The majority of what we discard is curved, twisted or discoloured,” he says. “We throw them away, but they are not poisonous, they are still good to eat.”

Unfortunately, it’s not just the UK market that often deems otherwise. The market in Kenya for such rarefied vegetables as mangetout or fine French beans is embryonic, restricted to the wealthy few who shop at Western-style supermarkets in city malls rather than rowdy ramshackle street stalls. “We Kenyans love our sukuma wiki [coarse-leafed kale], so there’s no local market for these products. The rejects we give to our cows,” says the operations director.

Watching the ‘waste’ accumulate is a depressing sight to witness first-hand. On the packing warehouse floor, men and women in white lab coats and caps stand shoulder to shoulder at chrome tables. Gutters and shoots lead to plastic crates below.

The workers sift through the vegetables by hand, inspecting each one and dropping those that don’t fit the bill into the gutters, along with the trimmed ends of beans and picked stalks of mangetouts. As the crates of rejected vegetables fill up, they are stacked on top of each other. By the end of the day there are dozens of them in the concrete-floored compound outside.

“Much of the rejection we do here is not because of damage, insects or pesticide levels, it is cosmetic,” says the production line manager, who demonstrates his point by rummaging in a pallet of freshly picked French beans and plucking out one that is bent into a ‘u’ shape and another with a less extreme curve. “These will not do,” he says. “Every client has its own specifications: how long, the diameter, size, straightness.”

The vegetables that do meet the requirements are neatly packed and wrapped in cling film stamped with a sticker containing a code that makes the produce traceable back to its origin in a small one-acre farm in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Then the boxes are trucked to the nearby airport, loaded on to a cargo plane and flown to London. A crop harvested in rural Kenya on Monday and packed in Nairobi on Tuesday can be on supermarket shelves in the UK by Wednesday or Thursday.

In the evening, freelance purchasing agents acting as middlemen do the rounds of the packhouses offering a few pence a kilo for the rejected vegetables. “There are many, many reasons why the food is rejected: either it is too big or too small, damaged or bruised, overgrown or too young, maybe a bean is too long, or the diameter too big or it’s not round enough,” says Amos Thiong’o of Agri-ProFocus, a Nairobi-based support organisation for Kenyan farmers. “There are so many cosmetic things we are looking for.”

Rejected fruit and vegetables meet a variety of fates. The biggest growers and exporters donate misshapen fruit and veg to schools and orphanages (see box right) or sell it to processors for around Ksh20/kg (£0.15), a big discount on the cost of planting, growing, harvesting and transporting the products to the packhouses in the first place. But the vast majority of food deemed unfit for British tables is fed to livestock. “A small percentage goes to the local market, a small percentage to canners and a small percentage to schools and the local community, but most is sold as fodder to dairy farmers,” says Thiong’o.

At Ksh10/kg (£0.08), piles of rejected peas, beans and baby corn make for a cheap, high-protein alternative fodder for cows. But the waste is great. A single kilogram of fine beans is bought from farmers at Ksh50 (£0.39) and costs another Ksh20 (£0.16) to transport and store before it is rejected. The losses for a kilo of mangetout are higher still, sold as fodder for a tenth of their production and transport costs.

No one has accurately estimated the full extent of food waste in Kenya’s agricultural export industry, but Thiong’o says anecdotal evidence suggests each average size packer is discarding hundreds of kilos of perfectly edible vegetables every day. “They are throwing away mangetout, sugar snaps, French beans, baby corn, leeks,” he says.

All of this is detracting from their bottom line. In most cases, it is the exporters who bear the brunt of the losses, sometimes with catastrophic results. “The big companies can absorb the shocks, but the smaller ones can even shut down,” says Thiong’o, adding angrily: “Who has set these cosmetic standards that exporters have to abide by? Is it really the consumers or is it the retailers? It looks very nice on the shelves, very uniform, but I don’t think the consumers know what goes into that. It shouldn’t matter if a vegetable is crooked as long as it tastes good.”

Food campaigner Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, shares Thiong’o’s concerns and believes the way to stop the waste is to persuade Britain’s big supermarkets that aesthetics aren’t everything.

In February, he pulled off an impressive publicity stunt during a visit to Kenya, feeding waste food to hundreds of diplomats at a United Nations meeting in Nairobi. He sourced the rejected food from exporters and hired one of the city’s top chefs to create a five-course gourmet meal supplied entirely from food that would otherwise have been fed to livestock or left to rot.

The UN environment Programme (UNEP) hosted the dinner, which included dishes such as Indian yellow lentil daal with tamarind and Mexican grilled sweetcorn tamale, and garnered headlines such as ‘UN served five-course meal from EU’s rejects’.

Speaking at the event, Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, declared. “No economic, environmental or ethical argument can be made to justify the extent of food waste and loss currently happening in the world, and at UNEP we practice what we preach. With this dinner, we are demonstrating to retailers, consumers and policymakers who can push for change that the astonishing amount of food we throw away is not just edible and nutritious, but also delicious.”

According to Stuart’s organisation Feeding the 5,000, a third of the food produced globally is wasted, while in rich countries like Britain that rises to half. Meanwhile, a billion people worldwide go hungry in poorer countries such as Kenya. “At the moment the situation in Kenya is a total scandal,” says Stuart.

Confronted with Stuart’s findings, one senior Kenyan government official described the level of waste in his country as “an irony and a mockery of nature”.

Horticultural exports - food and flowers combined - are among Kenya’s top foreign exchange earners (alongside tourism and tea exports), but Stuart argues that “injustices in the supply chain” between the Kenyan farmer and the British consumer must be removed for moral, environmental and economic reasons.

“While acknowledging export to European and British supermarkets has been a fantastic source of revenue for Kenyan growers - and I don’t want to knock that in the slightest - at the moment there are injustices in that supply chain that need not occur,” he claims.

He also warns supermarkets that they should not take their near-monopoly on Kenyan produce for granted. “Other markets are growing and some of the exporters I spoke to are very keen to shift to markets where the price may not be as high as it is in Europe but the trading practices are fairer, less fussy, less wasteful. And that can’t be in the interest of European supermarkets in the long term,” he says. “The idea that we are paying land owners in Kenya to extract scarce water from the water table of Kenya to grow beans that we then reject and waste is fundamentally wrong.”

If not criminal, some might argue. With the likes of Stuart doing more to highlight the issue, the supermarkets would perhaps do well to review their sourcing policies… sooner rather than later.


What a waste!