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Ideas & Debate

Meeting Kenya’s great potential in agriculture



A farmer ploughs his land. FILE PHOTO | NMG
A farmer ploughs his land. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

We keep hearing that young Kenyans just aren’t attracted to farming, and that the average age of a farmer here is 60. For years too, we’ve been worrying about the fragmentation of land into smaller and smaller plots, and about the absence of collaboration between farmers so they can benefit from economies of scale. We witness the deep conservatism of many of them, as they merely emulate their predecessors.

Also, given the widespread dispersal of our small-scale farmers it’s been hard to bring them together into a strong national members’ organisation, or even to form local sustainable cooperatives. Marketing boards for different crops have more likely fleeced than nurtured farmers in their sub-sectors, and our agricultural research institutes have been insufficiently demand focused. Never mind that the research bodies haven’t been working closely enough with either the universities or the national or county governments. Let’s not even talk about sectors such as sugar and maize and coffee, and how and why producers of these crops have suffered so badly.

But having said all this, there are many sources of optimism for agriculture. And not just because food sustainability is one of the Jubilee Government’s Big Four agenda. One only has to scan the Saturday agriculture supplements in our dailies to see how much exciting knowledge is being shared, and everywhere I go these days I hear about ambitious yet realistic ways of transforming this sector – where before, unless we were talking about horticulture or dairy, we’d be hard pressed to come up with such enthusiasm.

Just in the last few weeks I was told by one professional about his high-productivity onion farming that’s going to scale in Laikipia; by another of an equally impressive initiative in Tana River with sorghum; and by my good friend Florence Wambugu, the CEO of Africa Harvest, about their successes in spreading sustainable new approaches to small-scale agriculture. Important too are large private sector players in agribusiness such as Bidco, Nestlé, Unilever and East African Breweries, who stimulate healthy demand from farmers and help them deliver consistent quality; and those who offer inputs, such as Elgon, Bayer and Amiran.

Then there’s so much happening with technology support for transforming agricultural productivity, including with Safaricom’s knowledge-sharing DigiFarm platform and APA’s one for insurance; through GODAN (Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition), that helps farmers make use of digital information; and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, based in Nairobi.

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The Kenya Private Sector Alliance(Kepsa)’s Agriculture Board is a very lively one, and numerous other sub-sector boards feed into it; we benefit from the Society of Crop Agribusiness Advisors of Kenya (SOCAA) that promotes professionalism in agribusiness; and several development partners are working hard to support our farmers too, typically in helping with the strengthening of supply chains.

One interesting new initiative I have been supporting is hosted within GIZ’s Agriculture Programme, which focuses on stimulating employment opportunities in agri-business for youth in rural areas of western Kenya by strengthening selected value chains. Last week I moderated an event that brought together private sector players to share what they could contribute to support existing youth groups active in farming so that they become exemplars for self-motivated and self-reliant profit-generators who understand whole value chains, from market demand backwards to high productivity production.

There are so many organisations offering help to farmers, not least to young people, so they can build their capacity, link up with others and access everything from inputs to technology to finance to markets, while others work on creating an enabling environment.

There’s no shortage of passionate missionaries reaching out all over Kenya to show our youth how to make a very viable career in agriculture through sound ways of increasing their revenues and reducing their costs.

Now what’s left is for us to see more youthful role models who can demonstrate their success as farmers as they go to scale, and so attract others to join them. For this to happen we must continue to bring together those who are contributing ideas and resources so that there is synergy between them and sustainability for the beneficiaries.

While the agriculture cup’s nowhere near full, at least it’s begun to fill much faster than before.

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