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Opinion & Analysis

Robust agro-industry holds key to economic growth

Pyrethrum farmers. Pyrethrum was a key commercial crop and export in the old days, and a global demand still exists despite competition from petrochemical synthetics. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Pyrethrum farmers. Pyrethrum was a key commercial crop and export in the old days, and a global demand still exists despite competition from petrochemical synthetics. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

In the midst of the ongoing political noise we often miss bits of critical news which is often loaded with huge developmental potential. Like last week when a foreign investor, African Plantation Capital (APC), announced that they are setting up large-scale bamboo plantations in Kenya targeting various commercial applications. This is agro-forestry which can be mainstreamed into a significant economic sub-sector.

Bamboos have multiple potential economic uses while increasing forest cover for better hydrology and an enhanced carbon sink. Bamboos can do well in marginal areas thus minimising conflicts with national food production priorities, and they are self-reproducing after harvesting.

I believe Kenya can create a robust paper industry out of bamboo based agro-forestry especially in marginal areas. The current Webuye Pan-Paper business model of the early 1970s may no longer be commercially viable or environmentally sustainable. It was based on feed stocks from large government plantations of cypress and pine trees, an activity which has diminished over time.

The challenge is for the industrialisation and agriculture ministries to come up with a blueprint for a sustainable paper industry in Kenya, based on sustainable agro-forestry especially bamboos. The paper industry can be a major direct and indirect employer and a potential exporter into the region.

The other piece of not-so-big but critical news last week was that the pyrethrum sector is attracting more private sector commercialisation that may lead to increased processing. Pyrethrum was a key commercial crop and export in the old days, and a global demand still exists despite competition from petrochemical synthetics.

The pyrethrum counties — and they used to be many before the sub-sector collapsed – can prioritise this crop to strengthen their county economies to create more jobs and incomes. Counties can collaborate among them and with investors to achieve economies of scale for pyrethrum processing industries.

Then there is the sugar industry which has become a limping national shame. A previously robust industry has been allowed to gradually go down as the nation continues to import sugar. This has led to loss of many jobs, while pushing stakeholder farmers to near poverty.

The governors of the sugar growing counties in Nyanza and Western areas should visit Kwale, a county which is doing well in sugar industry rehabilitation, and learn firsthand how to salvage the sugar industry in their counties.

The sorghum story is a perfect example of linking agriculture with manufacturing. After fiscal corrections on the keg beer taxes by the Treasury there is now a strong growth potential for this crop, and hopefully for other starch crops that are suitable candidates for beer-making.

Another relevant area for discussion is the animal feed manufacturing. Because our agricultural sector cannot supply the animal feed factories with sufficient raw materials, we have to rely on imports from Tanzania. We are talking of sun-flower, cotton seed, soya and maize-germ, all of which are linked to the primary cooking-oil industries.

It’s embarrassing for Kenya to be so heavily dependent on Tanzania to keep the animal feed industries and the livestock sector viable when indeed Kenya has sufficient agricultural capacity to grow the inputs. Without sufficient local production and supply of animal feeds, the livestock sub-sector will remain a victim of stunted growth. And cooking oil industries will remain heavily dependent on imported raw materials.

Lastly, the country is still waiting to see the big ideas on local leather industry translate into reality. Linking the pastoralists to a sustainable value-added leather industry remains a burning priority.

There should be a tripartite forum of Council of Governors, ministry of agriculture and that of industrialisation to formulate a master plan for revival and stimulation of agricultural based industrialisation.

Although agriculture is a devolved role, master planning for agro-industries can only be effectively and efficiently achieved with the full involvement of the national government.

Agriculture remains the main economic sector for Kenya with the highest capacity for jobs and incomes growth while stemming what looks like unsustainable rural- to-urban migration of jobless youths. Agro-based industries will be the catalyst for this agriculture.

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