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Smart technologies keep farming afloat despite Covid-19, climate change

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Siyapei Enkare Gusur chairperson Joseph Tiambati at one of the group’s tomato farms in Narok. PHOTO | LEOPOLD OBI | NMG

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Summary

  • Unpredictable weather, poor soils, rising cases of pests and diseases are increasingly complicating the food production matrix in Kenya and elsewhere.
  • With smart technologies and timely climate information, however, farmers can effectively minimise the impacts of these challenges as well as enhance yields and income.

Unpredictable weather, poor soils, rising cases of pests and diseases are increasingly complicating the food production matrix in Kenya and elsewhere.

The food production equation has recently become even more complex with the emergence of Covid-19, which to date threatens human movement, crippling the distribution of essential agricultural inputs such as seeds, fertilisers and farm chemicals.

With smart technologies and timely climate information, however, farmers can effectively minimise the impacts of these challenges as well as enhance yields and income.

Anthony Kioko, Cereal Growers Association chief executive, recounts that last year when Kenya first imposed a Covid-19 lockdown, inaccessibility of farm inputs dealt a big blow to dozens of smallholder farmers who were at the time gearing up for planting.

A slow-down in production, he says, is a precursor to food insecurity and high commodity prices.

“Coronavirus is just an example of what sort of disruption we can suffer in the future.

“The immediate disruption was on farmers accessing inputs, market, extension and training. We, therefore, need several interventions among them service centres which have services closer to farmers,” he says.

Extension services

While the virus persists, Mr Kioko says its impact on local food systems can be minimised by bringing the services closer to farmers so that they do not have to rely on solutions that are far off.

“Agricultural extension services, for instance, can be revitalised through village-based agricultural advisers who are the last-mile service providers,” he said.

Mr Kioko, whose organisation collaborated with the Agriculture ministry, Bayer Life Science and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to supply maize and vegetable seeds to hundreds of farmers, notes that supporting farmers to pick up themselves after the economic disruption more sustainable compared to giving food aids.

The initiative reached 142,000 farmers in 20 counties, which represents more than 40,000 acres of maize and 400 acres of vegetables.

Siyapei Enkare Gusur, a farmers’ group growing tomatoes and vegetables in Narok County, is one of the beneficiaries of the initiative.

Besides using hybrid seeds, the group has also employed the expertise of a seedling propagation firm to ensure they have the right planting materials from the start.

With strings of sisal ropes wound around their waists, Joseph Tiambati and members of his Siyapei Enkare Gusur group pull the strings one by one before using them to tie and stake fruiting tomatoes.

The group of 18 farmers planted the tomatoes at the beginning of the year, and three months later they are ready for harvesting.

Looking around the land, one will easily notice that all the tomatoes sprouted after transplanting, which is usually quite rare.

In many instances, farmers propagate seeds by themselves by preparing small nursery beds where they plant the seeds for three-four weeks before transplanting them to the field.

A seasoned farmer who has been growing vegetables for years, Tiambati says a number of his seedlings died either in the nursery or on the field whenever he propagated them himself.

He, therefore, became jittery of propagating his seeds. And, when they formed a farmers’ group last year, he advised his fellow farmers to engage an expert.

Tomato seeds

Since seed propagators mainly use soilless media, which free from soil-borne diseases and enables easy transplanting of seedlings without interfering with the crop root system, seedlings propagated in this manner turn out healthy and productive, researchers say.

“We had tomato seeds, which we gave Naivasha-based Plantech Kenya to do the propagation. Once the seedlings were ready for transplanting we collected them and put them in the field. We were charge Sh1.60 per seedling,” explained Tiambati, a retired military officer turned farmer.

They transplanted about 10,000 seedlings and expects about 100 crates of tomatoes.

Apart from wheat, barley and potatoes, Narok is also well known for its tomatoes. But while tomatoes are harvested here in plenty, many farmers barely earn any meaningful profits due to middlemen who have taken over the market.

Because the brokers dictate both farmgate and market prices, smallholder farmers have no options but to sell to them. The middlemen sometimes fill the crates far beyond the brim, reaping off the farmer.

“With the support of the county government tomato farmers here decided to form groups through. We are trained in agricultural skills, including market access and linkages,” said Mr Tiambati, adding group members contribute Sh100 every week during their meetings.

The farmers said they were to begin their farming as a group last year, but due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, they could not meet and plant their activities due to health safety protocols to curb the spread of the disease.

Besides, seeds among other farm inputs, were hard to access after the pandemic paralysed logistics and food system.

Susan Wapari, one of the officials of the group, notes that many individual tomato farmers did not grow the crop last year due to the lockdown.

“Luckily, the county government in partnership with saw what farmers were going through and supplied (inputs),” she says.

The tomatoes have been planted in a spacing of three square feet and are irrigated twice a week.

The farmer says unlike maize, which is planted once or twice in the season, they transplant tomato every month so that you have a continuous supply for the market.

“As a farmer, I don’t do a big farm at once, instead I subdivide my farm is small portion like quarter an acre then farm rotationally,” she explains, adding that staking is done to keep the fruits from touching the soil, which could otherwise result into disease infections.

Covid-19 outbreak

Mr Tiambati says they formed the group early last year just before the Covid-19 outbreak, but they could not meet to plan on their farming activities later due to safety protocols.

Everlyne Koiyan, Agriculture executive says the Narok is working hard to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 among smallholder farmers by distributing farm inputs, for instance, seeds of high-value horticultural crops like tomatoes and cabbages.

According to Ms Koiyan, Covid-19 has changed how agriculture is done. Therefore, farmers’ capacity must be built to enable them to access farm inputs digitally.

But while digital access to farm inputs has its fair share of challenges, the CEC says part of the training includes identifying good seeds from fake seeds so that farmers are not exploited by online racketeers.