The sustainability of crop farming has increasingly come into question in the past few weeks as fertiliser prices skyrocket.
Supply chain disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February have curtailed shipments of key fertiliser components such as Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium from the two countries, which are among the world’s biggest suppliers.
In face of the global shortages, the price been rising with every passing day, jumping as high as Sh6,000 per 50-kilogramme bag, nearly double the price a year ago.
Farmers have been forced to make tough choices — either dig deeper into their pockets to access this indispensable farm input that is crucial for better yields and pest management, or minimise on their costs by cutting on the acreage they put under production.
Some large-scale farmers, especially in the North Rift, have reportedly opted for the latter option, which analysts warn will worsen the country’s already precarious food security situation.
But for small-scale farmers, the choice is not so black-and-white. Being more dependent on the farming ventures for family sustenance, they need to put every bit of the small acreage they have under production and all the input they can get to guarantee better yields.
Such farmers have found an answer in organic fertiliser, which is not only cheaper but also easily accessible and environment-friendly compared to the synthetic type they have been using.
One of them is Scolasticah Wambui, who farms maize, beans, as well as vegetables such as kales, spinach, and cabbages’ in Gakonye, Kiambu County.
Mrs Wambui says that she stopped applying synthetic fertilisers on her plants since she could not afford the products. That their application was also making her soil toxic played a role in the shift.
On her two-acres farm, for example, she used buy five 50-kilogramme bags of fertilizers for about Sh3,000 each before prices shot up, meaning that she was paying around Sh15,000 a year. Today, to buy the same input, she would need at least Sh30,000.
“If I buy fertiliser with that price then it means my earnings will drop by nearly a quarter if market prices remain constant,” she tells the Business Daily.
Instead, she now uses Mazao Flourish, a liquid organic fertiliser which costs her Sh500 per acre, saving her a lot of money. The fertiliser is made from living organisms and microorganisms that control plant diseases as well as boost yields.
She is full of praise for the fertiliser, saying she has seen it help minimise disease damage from several soil borne fungi whilst helping her plants overcome environmental stresses through increased root development.
Real IPM, the firm behind the Mazao Flourish brand works with farmers to create awareness, stressing on the low-hanging yields and income boost benefits.
“I wish I would have known about organic fertiliser earlier. I have never harvested such good yields from my land for the last 10 years.”
"From the produce I sell, I am now able to comfortably cater for all my household needs, but not limited to school fees and medical expenses and still save from my profits” Mr Wambui adds.
Moses Bikokwa, a French beans farmer also from Kiambu says that his farm production has increased by more than 20 percent since he shifted to organic fertiliser.
“I am able to harvest so much more from the same piece of land. For instance, last season, I harvested an extra 300kgs of French beans from my one acre farm.”
Likewise, he is saving around 30 percent in farm input cost that he would otherwise have incurred from synthetic fertilisers.
The biggest challenge for bio-fertiliser is the attitude change, which contributes to the slow adoption by farmers.
They have been using the same farming methods for such a long time and it takes quite some time to convince them to adopt new farming techniques.
Real IPM General Manager Samuel Ngugi tells the Business Daily that the tide is however starting to change as other farmers see the real benefits from the early adopters.
Mr Ngugi says their product reduces fertiliser usage by 25 percent besides increasing yields by up to 25 percent.
"Our technology is working, and we are working in collaboration with our partners to ensure all farmers benefit from it,” Mr Ngugi says.
Unlike synthetic top dressing, Mr Ngugi reckons that farmers can save between 30-40 percent in farm income losses by using eco-friendly enrichers.
"Farmers need not to worry about the soil acidity as Mazao Flourish is a biological mixture of beneficial microbes, which are living organisms that promote growth by increasing the supply of primary nutrients to the plant," Mr Ngugi adds.
The company, which is based in Thika, Kiambu, also operates in Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and South Africa.
It has employed over 100 Kenyans in the supply chain.
The firm, which has reached out 10,000 farmers through its network of agro-vets and distributors nationwide, produces 5,500 liters of bio-fertilisers per week, making an annual production of 286,000 liters.
Demand for organic manure is also set to rise after the Ministry of Agriculture capped sales of subsidized fertilizers at 20 bags, meaning big-scale farmers will have to look for alternative manures.