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Kenyans look up to greener diets


Caroline Moko, the operations manager at Sylvia’s Basket located at Soko Safi Mall on Ngong Road, Nairobi. The grocery stocks organic vegetables. PHOTO | POOL

Can Kenyans produce enough food from farms that use solar, wind energy technologies or hydroponics, and aquaponics?

As the world pushes for sustainable agriculture that saves water and the environment, the debate is whether organic farming is the way to go.

This type of farming considers potential environmental and social impacts by eliminating the use of synthetic inputs, such as synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, veterinary drugs, genetically modified seeds and breeds, preservatives, additives and irradiation, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

These are replaced with site-specific management practices that maintain and increase long-term soil fertility and prevent pest and diseases.

Although as yet only a small industry, organic agriculture is becoming of growing importance in the agriculture sector of several countries, irrespective of their stage of development.

Organic farms tend to store more carbon in the soil, hence offsetting other greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that only about 180,000 hectares of land in Kenya is currently under organic agriculture, despite the growing demand for chemical-free grown food.

Sylvia Kuria, an organic farmer, has been selling fresh produce in Nairobi for more than 12 months.

With five and 10-acre plots of land in Limuru and Mai Mahiu respectively, Ms Kuria feeds healthy food-conscious consumers who frequent her Sylvia’s Basket grocery stall at Soko Safi Mall on Nairobi’s Ngong Road.

She grows more than 30 types of traditional food crops including cassava, sweet potatoes, beans and pumpkins. She supplements her produce from smallholder farms in Limuru. But this is not enough.

There is rising consumer awareness of a greener diet and chemical-free grown foods, but this type of farming where artificial fertilisers and pesticides are not used may not feed Kenyans in the long term.

Although it saves the environment, critics say organic farming is unreliable due to low yields and susceptibility to pests and diseases.

However, Ms Kuria argues that the key secret in controlling pests in these farms is avoiding mono-cropping.

“I have subdivided my farm into small plots where I grow different varieties of vegetables such as lettuce, traditional vegetables, onions, tomatoes and this kind of cropping scares away pests,” she says.

Ms Kuria started her farm as a kitchen garden. She then expanded it and started making her compost manure which is safe for the environment, using a mix of plants such as neem (mwarubaine), pepper and ginger to control pests.

Vertical farming, which uses between 70 per cent to 95 per cent less water than traditional farming, and more than 90 per cent less land, can reduce hunger and also eliminate planet-warming emissions caused by ploughing fields, weeding and harvesting, as well as transportation.

Elizabeth Koigi does vertical gardening in Murang’a and also sells the equipment.

“Besides providing vertical garden equipment, we educate farmers on making manure, compost pits, vermicompost, and pesticides,” she says, adding that she grows capsicum, kale, and other traditional crops, without synthetic farm inputs which pollute water sources, leading to biodiversity loss and soil degradation.

Organic farming is not just for food crops alone.

Felista Orangi is an assistant farm manager at Ololo Farm, which rears organic chicken for eggs and meat. Eating organic chicken is much better for the climate than conventionally produced beef, research shows.

Organic chicken farmers avoid the use of antibiotics and also feed the chicken on organic feeds.

“There are about six vaccination regimens for chicken but we only give our birds two essential vaccines against Newcastle disease,” says Ms Orangi.

Given the natural production processes, certified organic products are generally more expensive than their conventional counterparts. This is mainly because the organic food supply is limited as compared to demand. This type of products is also costly because their production costs are typically higher because of greater labour inputs per unit of output and since greater diversity of enterprises means economies of scale cannot be achieved.

Additionally, post-harvest handling of relatively small quantities of organic foods results in higher costs because of the mandatory segregation of organic and conventional produce, especially for processing and transportation.

Last but not least, marketing and the distribution chain for organic products is relatively inefficient and costs are higher because of relatively small volumes.