September 29, 1995
Pesticide Hazards on Kenyan Coffee Estates
The Kenyan pesticide market was approximately US$40.4 million
in 1992, placing Kenya among the highest pesticide users in
sub-Saharan Africa according to a recent audit, "Pesticide
Use and Management in Kenya" commissioned by World Wide Fund
for Nature (WWF). The audit examines the hazards of pesticide
use, products available on the open market and pesticide
shipments to Kenya. As in many developing countries,
pesticide use in Kenya is concentrated in large-scale
production of export crops that generate foreign exchange,
such as fruit, vegetables, flowers and coffee, the principal
foreign exchange earner until 1988.
Although pesticide use has fallen, approximately 60% of
pesticides used annually are applied to coffee, primarily
fungicides to combat coffee berry disease and leaf rust.
Herbicides are used extensively in wheat production, while
substantial quantities of insecticides are used in flower,
vegetable and cotton production. Significant amounts of
pesticides are used on coffee estates, and sprayers are
regularly exposed. As part of the WWF audit, author Hassan
Partow visited 19 estates, during peak spraying periods in
1993. Interviews with 105 pesticide mixers, loaders and
applicators on these estates provided additional information.
The report shows that spraying is predominantly a male
occupation, and only two of the workers observed were women.
However, coffee harvesting activities are almost exclusively
the domain of female laborers and their children, and the
picking period overlaps with pesticide application periods.
Women are thus frequently exposed when required to pick in
recently sprayed areas. Typically, workers sprayed from six
to eleven hours a day. There are no lunch breaks or other
rest pauses, although one estate provided workers with half a
liter of milk per day. The monthly wage was roughly US$11-14,
placing pesticide farmworkers in the lowest income group in
In none of the estates was soap, drinking water or field
sanitation facilities available to pesticide workers during
spray operations. Water was only available to workers from
drums intended for mixing pesticide concentrate. Most workers
waited until reaching home to wash, and many workers
complained of the difficulty of obtaining soap.
Workers mixed chemical concentrates using bare hands and
stirred with a tree branch or stick. Pesticide solutions were
poured without use of funnels, making spillage and splashes
unavoidable. Applicators sprayed both with and against the
wind as spray tractors were driven up and down the rows in
succession to save time and fuel.
Some workers were provided with protective gear: 59% of those
observed were supplied with overalls or aprons and 36% with
boots. However, most worked bare foot (53%) or wore open
slippers (11%). For those provided with overalls, laundering
was either weekly (in 68% of cases) or at two to three week
intervals, forcing workers to use pesticide-soaked clothing
for long periods. Protective clothing often was deteriorated,
and rarely replaced.
None of the workers had received formal training in mixing,
loading or application of pesticides. Over half of the
workers (58%) did not know the name of the chemical they were
applying, nor were any workers questioned familiar with first
aid procedures. During the survey, workers applied fungicides
(such as captafol and chlorothalonil), insecticides (azinphos
methyl, diazinon and omethoate) and herbicides (glyphosate
and paraquat). Application methods included open cab
tractors, hose pipes attached with a spray lance, and
knapsack spraying. Equipment was generally in a poor
condition, with leaks occurring regularly.
Most workers reported experiencing adverse health effects
during periods of pesticide use. Many described their
dizziness as "feeling drunk" or "a spinning sensation." Eye
irritations included complaints of "burning inside" and
"seeing darkness." Other common symptoms were skin irritation
(84%), breathing difficulties (71%), stomach problems (58%)
and nausea (20%). Women harvesters complained that the most
common adverse effects were skin irritations, dizziness,
nausea and vomiting. Many pickers were adamant that
pesticides were the cause of such ailments, noting that these
symptoms did not arise when they were processing coffee or
While the overwhelming majority of workers were aware of the
health consequences of pesticides, their fear of job loss led
most to dismiss occupational safety as an unaffordable
luxury. One spray operator summed up the dilemma saying, "If
the pesticides don't kill us, then hunger will."
Source: Pesticides News 29, September 1995; "Pesticide Use
and Management in Kenya," Hassan Partow, Institut
Universitaire D'Etudes du Developpement, Geneva, 1995.
Contact: The Pesticides Trust, Eurolink Centre, 49 Effra
Road, London SW2 1BZ, UK; phone (44-171) 274 8895; fax (44-
171) 274 9084; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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