Seed firm founder reaps from efforts to transform agriculture

Captain (Rtd) James Karanja, the CEO of Freshco
Captain (Rtd) James Karanja, the CEO of Freshco Seeds Kenya Limited. Freshco’s main achievements is the development of striga-resistant seeds that it sells to farmers in regions that are affected by the notorious weed that stunts maize crops (above). PHOTO | COURTESY 

When he started the campaign to promote quality and affordable seeds to boost farmers’ earnings in semi-arid areas of eastern Kenya, Rtd Captain James Karanja did not imagine the massive impact his idea would have.

Mr Karanja, the CEO of Freshco Seeds Kenya Limited, was in May awarded the 2015 African Agribusiness Entrepreneur Award South Africa for his efforts to transform agriculture.

The award, which is given annually by global NGO Market Matters Inc., recognises entrepreneurs who have demonstrated outstanding achievements in value-added agricultural innovations in Africa.

“I am glad to be recognised among the African entrepreneurs who contribute significantly to empowering small-holder farmers through access to quality and affordable seeds,” Mr Karanja told the Business Daily on Friday.

Freshco’s main achievement is the development of striga-resistant seeds that it sells to farmers in regions that are affected by this notorious weed.

About 200,000 hectares in Nyanza and western Kenya have been hard-hit by the weed, resulting in losses estimated at Sh7.1 billion per year.

Striga weed is estimated to affect 1.4 million hectares in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, causing 20 to 80 per cent loss of maize crops.

The weed attaches its roots to the roots of maize or sorghum plants, sapping the nutrients that the crops get from the soil and starving them in the process.

Freshco Seeds, which was founded in 2000, specialises in the production, processing and distribution of high quality seeds and planting materials to farming communities.

The company has since extended its market to the larger East and Central Africa. Freshco sells its maize seeds at Sh145 per kilogramme compared to other seed producing companies which sell the same quantity at Sh180.

The firm markets a wide variety of cereal and vegetable seeds to small-holder farmers, including nine maize seed lines, 17 varieties of vegetables, eight drought-resistant crop varieties and 18 tree seeds varieties as well as planting materials.

The company manages its own processing, packaging, marketing and distribution network. It is also involved in collaborative research and product advancement initiatives.

Two years ago, Freshco was awarded a $600,000 (Sh58.2 million) grant by the African Challenge Enterprise Fund – a fund established by Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra).

This money helped the Nakuru-based company expand its operations into the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Many farmers in the country register low yields for lack of access to certified seeds owing to high costs, hence forcing them to plant seeds from previous harvests.

The ministry of Agriculture has blamed this trend on declining productivity in farms, with close to 15 per cent of farmers planting uncertified seeds.

Mr Karanja says the progress of many seed companies in Kenya is deterred by a range of retrogressive policies and regulatory processes that make it difficult for entrepreneurs to establish and efficiently run businesses.

He urges governments to institute reforms to attract a larger number of entrepreneurs to the sector.

Agra’s Director, Programme for Africa’s Seed System, Joe DeVries, said the award given to Freshco would send a positive message to other seed entrepreneurs in the region and encourage them to increase investments in the sector.

“Knowing the huge challenges faced in the seed industry in Africa, I am delighted that the organisers of the award chose to recognise Mr Karanja for his positive contribution to agricultural transformation,” he said.