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How Unscrupulous Kenyan Traders use Harmful Chemicals to Ripen Bananas

Updated on September 10, 2019
Nyamweya profile image

Nyamweya is an investigation journalist currently working for the Standard Media, Kenya.

Naturally and Chemically ripened bananas
Naturally and Chemically ripened bananas

Cases of unscrupulous traders using chemicals to ripen bananas, mangoes, tomatoes and other fruits have become rampart in Kenya. And now one Peter Bosire has revealed to us how his former employer, a fruit vendor at Airport North Road, a street adjacent to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport used to do it exactly.

According to the middle aged man, his former employer, a fruits trader was notorious for using a substance which he came to learn was calcium carbide to hasten the ripening of bananas and mangoes.

“The trader’s fruits which were meticulously uniform were ready for selling only two days after being delivered to her while green” claims Mr. Bosire also adding that “the trader was not the only one with this trend but also most of the fruit vendors around that place (Airport North Road)”

Indeed, a spot check by this reporter at the Airport North Road indicated that most fruit vendors at this place have unblemished ripened bananas, mangoes, and oranges which they are selling to customers.

Our informant, who worked for the employer for close to a year (January 2018 to November, 2018) as a hand-man, (offloading bananas from pickups or Lorries, and distributing them to other traders, and sometimes selling to consumers) claims that he was forced to look for another employment because his conscious was against what he was doing to innocent unsuspecting people. He is currently working for a company at Mombasa Road as a casual laborer.

“I really felt very bad especially considering the effects of the chemicals to the end user so, although I had clanged on the job since I had no otherwise; my moral judgment could not allow me to continue working for that woman”. He explains.

Asked where they used to get the chemical from (calcium carbide (CaC2), Mr. Bosire says that he was an errand boy for the employer for this product and she usually sent him to a specific place at Gikomba market ( the largest informal market in Nairobi city )where a sachet goes for only Kenya Shillings 20. According to him, these products are mainly sold in small bottles on wholesale but hawkers subdivide and sell in small satchets.

Mr. Bosire continues to explain that “after getting the commodity from Gikomba market, the trader will then wrap a small pellet of the substance in a small paper which is then put in the pile of fruits. The fruits will then ripen after just one day. The chemical can also be mixed with water and the bananas are dipped inside the solution before being covered”.

He adds that the ripened fruits are then sold to unsuspecting consumers, many of who are interestingly attracted by the homogeneity (uniformity) of the fruit.

However, the downside of this method as revealed by our informant was that the fruits ripened this way had to be sold within one or two days. Failure to be sold within that timeline will see the fruits decay and go bad. Therefore, traders will have to be careful on the quantity of the fruits to be ripened this way.

CaC2 is a known carcinogen - an agent with an ability to alter human cells into cancerous cells. According to Doctor David Ainea, a Food Science and Technology lecturer at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Calcium carbide whose actual purpose is production of acetylene gas used in welding, as well as in manufacturing of plastics contains arsenic and phosphorous impunities which if consumed can cause cancer, ulcers and other ailments.

“The chemical is extremely hazardous to the human body as it contains traces of arsenic and phosphorus. These chemicals when consumed can cause ailments such as cancer, diarrhea, vomiting, skin cancer, allergies and rashes and even miscarriages among pregnant women” explains Doctor Ainea.

Other diseases that can be caused by the intake of CaC2 according to the doctor include build up of fluids in the lungs, shortness of breath, and sore throats.

Dr. Ainea further agrees that the use of chemicals for fruit ripening has become rampart not only in Nairobi but in many parts of the country including in upcountry areas. However, he advises people to ensure that all the fruits are carefully washed and peeled to minimize the health risks related with the use of calcium carbide.

“You can also consider cutting the fruits into pieces instead of consuming them directly” he says adding that you can as well consider buying unripe fruits and ripen them yourself whenever possible”

Mr. Bosire with his experience dealing with chemically ripened fruits says that, it is not actually hard to identify bananas or mangoes that are naturally ripened against those that have been ripened with the aid of chemicals.

“If you have peeled a banana or mango that is uniformly yellow and unblemished only to find a green raw tissue inside, then chemicals were used to ripen it. These bananas are also tasteless. These bananas can actually be very attractive from the outside and the color is always uniform”.

He also explains that if the stem happens to be dark green but the fruit is yellow, there is high chance that it was ripened using chemicals. This could be because it may be treated but the chemical did not reach the entire fruit. This also extends to uniformly ripened oranges and tomatoes.

On the other hand, naturally ripened bananas are not uniformly yellow; rather, they look patchy (with brown spots) and have a black stalk and not a green one. They are also sweeter unlike those ripened with chemicals.

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