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Step by step, Kenyan farmers are improving their lot

The farms seem impossibly small and the challenges overwhelmingly huge, but Kenyans are 
creating marketing chains, improving productivity and even doing value added

Kenya’s story is a familiar one in African agriculture: Small farms, a great need for more production, and yet a high amount of post-harvest waste — often because farmers simply can’t get their product to market.

But things are changing.

“Kenyans need to do it themselves,” says Rien Geuze, agribusiness adviser for Agriterra, a Dutch organization working on agricultural business development in Kenya.

“What we have done for hundreds of years in Europe and North America, they have had to learn since independence in 1963. What can you do in a lifetime? You can do a lot but not everything.”

Agriculture is a primary driver of the Kenyan economy, accounting for 75 per cent of employment and 25 per cent of the GDP, with cash crops such as tea, coffee, and tobacco, as well as roses and other flowers, dominating exports. Smallholder farms remain key, producing 80 per cent of the country’s food.

But getting food to market is a challenge.

“If the western world didn’t want to give development aid anymore, if suddenly it was all too much, then just make roads,” says Geuze. “That’s the least you can do.”

Kenya also needs more reliable marketing systems, and organizations able to support farmers.

Farmer-owned co-operatives are increasingly being seen as one solution, and the model has worked particularly well in Kenya’s dairy sector.

The typical dairy farmer in Kenya has one to three cows, but dairy is still big business, contributing $2 billion a year to the economy. Of the 4.2 billion litres of milk produced each year, about 80 per cent comes from the one-million-plus farmers with fewer than 10 cows.

Dairy co-op success

Dairy co-operatives help organize and provide extension services for these small-scale farmers, as well as collecting and selling milk to the two dominant companies — government-owned New Kenya Co-operative Creameries and privately held Brookside Dairy.

Some co-operatives are also pushing into yogurt production, a competitive market but one that pays premiums which allow them to maintain the price they pay for milk when big companies cut their prices.

“Sometimes the success of the co-operative will drive the competition to step up its act,” says Geuze. “Farmers do not realize they only get at high prices from the companies or the hawkers because the co-op created value and drove up the price. If you take away the co-op, the whole thing falls apart.”

It’s quite different in the cereals sector, which in Kenya means maize. It accounts for 90 per cent of production, with wheat, sorghum, barley, millet and rice making up the remainder. Unlike the dairy sector, small-scale maize growers have struggled to find a marketing system that works.

It’s partly a legacy of the colonial system, says Justus Monda, president of the Kenya Small Scale Cereal Growers and deputy chairman of the Kenya National Federation of Agricultural Producers.

After independence, the national government, like its colonial predecessor, played a major role in the markets. When the World Bank pushed for market liberalization in the ’80s and early ’90s, farmers simply weren’t prepared, says Monda.

“When the market opened in the name of liberalization, farmers didn’t understand the new marketing channels,” he says. “Farmers have not reconciled our thinking to see what we can do, how competitive we can be, how we need to organize in order to meet the current status.”

Supply chain

Canada is a model that Kenya wants to emulate, says Monda.

“We want to learn the models and see the technology in Canada,” he says. “Canada has good supply-chain management and a very strong system. It’s not that we lack resources in this country, but people need to link up and learn a successful model.”

Monda is attempting to pioneer his own version of a reliable supply chain. He grows maize and sorghum on his 2.5-acre plot, and has established contracts with three schools in his region to supply maize. He also works with other farmers in his area to ensure he can get the quality and quantity of maize required by the schools.

“If you produce first and then discuss price when the produce is ready, that’s not business, it’s subsistence,” he says. “This is the cycle we have to break.”

In the village of Engineer, 35 local vegetable growers have collectively marketed their produce since 2011 and improved productivity. Working with the faculty from Nairobi University, they have developed a demonstration plot and farmer field to teach their members new techniques in planting, production and pest management. Just by implementing proper crop rotation, they have more than tripled annual production.

They’ve also focused on seven high-value food crops, negotiated contracts, and, as a collective, obtained bank financing for inputs. They’re currently negotiating with three of the country’s top grocery chains to supply vegetables.

“Marketing is still the biggest challenge,” says Esther Waithira Chege, chair of the group’s marketing committee. “It’s better to be seen as marketing as a group because as individuals we are in the hands of the brokers.”

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