Ideas & Debate
Why the most resilient farmer cannot continue living on fast-thinning hopeTuesday August 23 2016
Of late we have seen many positive but isolated efforts to upgrade the agriculture sector. But these efforts may need to be raised to a higher level of national priority and visibility to make the big difference. The prime objectives in agriculture remain urgent jobs delivery, increased grassroots incomes, food security, and ultimately an expanded national economy. The rallying call should indeed be a match towards a national green revolution.
Translating agricultural policies, development plans, and conference resolutions into a well-oiled national campaign for an agricultural green revolution is what will instill urgency among all players in the sector. I am talking of a campaign similar in visibility and resource allocation to the ongoing last mile electricity connections project.
The electrification programme is succeeding because it has clear targets and datelines. It is massively resourced, and closely monitored for results delivery. The highest authorities in the nation are visibly and effectively involved. If we are so serious about jobs and food security, this then is the approach we should adopt to expand and modernise agriculture.
Agriculture, unlike infrastructure, is not looking for significant outside resources (investments, loans, skills). The basic prerequisites for successful agriculture are already with us and these include large tracts of good soil; plenty of water from the skies (or underground); friendly climate; and above all an enterprising population traditionally inclined towards agriculture and animal husbandry. We also carry a huge inventory of lessons learned from past successes and failures especially in large scale commercial farming and value addition.
What we now require is mainly regulatory and fiscal polish ups; development of support infrastructure (roads, water, power); reasonably priced quality inputs; but above all effective and sustainable distribution and marketing systems, which multiply produce value.
Once these enablers are in place, the farmer will happily commit maximum effort and imagination to production. If economic returns from produce are good (because marketing systems are effective), and payments are timely, farmers will readily invest in technology, and may even not need credit. And above all, the younger generation will be motivated to follow their parents into farming.
Focusing on grassroots agriculture is where the maximum number of jobs is created and household incomes immediately multiplied. It is a very effective bottom-up socio-economic development model with diverse per capita impacts.
Yes, I am a chemical engineer usually domiciled in the oil and gas sector, but I also carry actual experience of a farmer who has seen the good and bad in agriculture. In 1991, I took an unusual risk and uprooted 10 acres of my coffee when the crop’s marketing systems started to collapse. I immediately moved into dairy farming, only for the old KCC to collapse a few years later, leaving us with no option but to scale down dairy activities and investments.
Whether coffee, milk, sugar, pyrethrum, cotton, maize, or wheat, it has become “caretaker” farming in Kenya after marketing value chains weakened or collapsed. And this is essentially the agricultural baseline today. Exceptions here are tea and horticulture sub-sectors, which have maintained fairly stable and effective marketing systems.
The urgent challenge for the government today is to straighten up marketing systems. The hardworking Kenyan farmer is still hanging out there impatiently waiting for this to happen. A producer, however resilient he is, cannot survive on hope alone – hope that one day prices and markets will be better. He needs to experience and enjoy above-break even economics.
However, we need to acknowledge a number of good things that are happening in the sector. We have seen a green revolution happening in Turkana with mechanised irrigation. Kwale is already greening itself with what looks like a healthy sugarcane crop. With subsidised fertilisers, crops in the rural areas are no longer looking yellow but a healthy green. And local production of fertilisers at Eldoret will hopefully reduce cost of inputs. Recent VAT fiscal interventions will definitely increase green acreage of sorghum in semi arid areas to feed into the beer market.
The recurrent word above is “green”, because Kenya has all it takes to green it with crops and in so doing keep millions productively employed. India went out of its way in 1960/70s and launched a successful green revolution, and since then the country feeds its large population with surpluses to export.
A green revolution campaign will get many thinking and participating in agricultural modernisation and expansion. The late President Jomo Kenyatta in the 1960s led a successful “back to the land” campaign, which was effectively backed by efficient marketing systems.
I have in this article emphasised marketing systems because it is the critical starting point for successful and sustainable agriculture.
Once the systems and infrastructure are aligned, then we can talk technology to improve productivity.
They invariably include value addition processing, which is mainly done by private sector partners who provide the final link with the market demands.
Mr Wachira is a consultant with Petroleum Focus