What is ‘cashew oil’ and why is it disfiguring Kenyan workers’ hands?

Their hands are raw, blistered and swollen. The men and women processing cashew nuts in Kilifi, Kenya use these sore hands to carefully extract the raw nut from the cashew fruit and shell. Many of them working without machines or protective equipment must avoid contact with the stinging liquid released from the shells. Photographs showing cashew workers’ hands were posted on Twitter on January 15, making waves in Kenya amid calls for reform. Local authorities have begun inspecting cashew nut facilities, even closing one down until it remedies its practices. 

A 36-year-old cashew factory worker received medical care for the burns and injuries on her hands caused by her work.
A 36-year-old cashew factory worker received medical care for the burns and injuries on her hands caused by her work. © Twitter / @KilifiCountyGov

Cashew nuts are among the main cash crops grown in Kenya’s coastal region, particularly in the county of Kilifi. But they are also some of the most labour-intensive and hazardous nuts to produce, often causing injury to those tasked with extracting the edible nut from the toxic shell.

This is what Daniel Faraja hoped to draw attention to when he posted photographs of cashew workers’ hands on his Twitter account on January 15. The Twitter thread attracted attention, garnering nearly a million views in just two days. 

‘They are forced to work and they’re not provided with gloves to protect their hands’

Daniel Faraja is an entrepreneur from Kilifi who lives near one cashew processing plant: 

In the morning on Sunday, [January 15, 2022], I met one of the labourers, my neighbour. She had come to my home to fetch water, and when I went to assist her, I looked at her hands and they looked disfigured. I asked her what the problem was and she told me ‘I work at the cashew nut processing plant. My hands look like this because of the cashew nuts there’. It looked so bad and she said that she was in pain. 

I decided to take pictures and share them online because I realised, this person is illiterate, they have not gone to school. They’re being exploited and they don’t know it. They are forced to work and they’re not provided with gloves to protect their hands. They are given some temporary gloves, but after 10 to 20 minutes, they’re worn out – they’re not given any others. 

The cashew nut shell has some oil, which is very corrosive and it's acidic. And when it gets in touch with the hands without wearing gloves, it causes injury.

The main by-product of cashew nut processing is cashew nut shell liquid (CNSL), a highly acidic substance which can burn the skin if not handled properly. Workers are advised to wear protective gloves and long-sleeved shirts to protect their skin from irritation from the CNSL during all steps of the process, from picking the cashew fruit to removing the shell. The irritation caused by CNSL is even more serious for workers in Kenya who process and shell cashews by hand rather than with machines. 

But exporting CNSL is also highly profitable, with the global market expected to grow 7.81% to $489.63 million (452.34 million euros) by 2026 as new uses for the substance are developed. The liquid can be recovered during the cashew shelling process. This is why many of Kenya’s cashew nut processors have turned to steaming or boiling nuts to release them from their shells, rather than the previous practice of roasting them and burning the residue shells.

A video posted on Twitter on January 16, 2023 shows cashew shells being burned.

CNSL is used in various paints, varnishes and resins with uses in the automotive, fuel and tobacco industries, among others. 

While the skin damage caused by CNSL has been documented, researchers maintain that the health impacts of cashew processing remains underreported due to the vulnerability of these workers  – many of whom are uneducated, female, overworked and underpaid. 

‘They can't do anything because their hands are always in pain’

Faraja continued: 

These workers end up getting hurt. They can’t go to work anymore. They can’t go to the farm and farm because their hands are in pain. They can’t eat hot food. They can’t wash their clothes. They can't take showers. They can't cook. They become vulnerable. They can't do anything because their hands are always in pain.  It's really disheartening because this is not something that should be happening. It's someone exploiting them because they're poor. And at the end of the day, they make very meagre salaries. And it’s not just two or three people, it’s 200 people, 300 people who are working in these factories [Editor’s note: various cashew processing facilities in Kilifi County employ more than 1,000 people]. 

According to our Observers, Kenyan cashew workers make between 6 and 20 Kenyan shillings (0.04 to 0.15 euros) per kilogram of cashews they process. Each person can only process around five or six kilograms of cashews per day. Meanwhile, the cashew nut can be sold for 1,500 Kenyan shillings (11.20 euros) per kilogram, while the liquid can be sold at 4,000 shillings (approximately 30 euros) for 500ml. 

‘When the employer and the management noticed that I was asking them questions, they chased me away’

Ananda Shadrack, a YouTuber and Kilifi local, learned about cashew nut workers’ plights while researching a documentary project about the economic benefits of cashew cultivation in Kilifi last November. He visited a cashew nut processing plant:

I learned there the challenges the workers are facing there. Working from 6am to 6pm. No appropriate gear provided by the employer, low wages. I asked for permission from the management to be allowed to take videos and interview some workers. But my request was turned down. However I decided to go ahead and interview the workers without recording anything but when the employer and the management noticed that I was asking them questions, they chased me away.

After seeing Faraja’s tweets, Shadrack went to speak with the victims at one cashew plant. He published his interview on YouTube.

“In my interview with [the workers], they revealed that the company they are working for does not provide them with the appropriate gloves to protect them from the nut oil. Instead, they give them gloves which only last for a few minutes, and they are only provided when visitors are around,” Shadrack explained in this video interview with cashew workers, conducted in Swahili.

Kilifi county is on the coast of Kenya. It is one of the marginalised regions in Kenya, faced with hunger, high levels of school dropouts and early pregnancies [Editor’s note: the poverty rate in Kilifi in 2016 was 48.4%]. 

For decades this region has not had even a single media channel that would try to highlight the challenges facing the people in this area so I decided to start one as a way of helping my people. I always try to broadcast every single injustice and abuse of human rights. The reason I talked with the labourers was just to help them get justice. 

Following the tweets and videos drawing attention to the injuries caused by cashew processing, the Kilifi County government inspected local cashew plants. They ordered one company – Warda Nuts, which employed the woman in the photographs – to close until it was able to provide medical certificates and protective equipment to all employees. They also helped the woman in the photographs seek medical care.

Kenya’s cashew nut industry indirectly employs up to 50,000 people. While production has declined drastically in recent decades, several national projects, as well as foreign manufacturers, have contributed to enhanced cashew nut production in Kenya’s coastal region.