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Why high-earning soybeans are yet to take root in Kenya

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Soy on wooden table, flat lay. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Summary

  • Currently, soybean farming in Kenya is mostly practised in western — parts of Busia, Kakamega, Homa Bay, Migori and Bungoma.
  • It has been an uphill task convincing Kenyan farmers to take up soybean farming despite the evident benefits.

It is almost midday. Roselyne Siama, 40, from Matayos sub-county in Busia, has just arrived home from attending to her soybean farm, some few metres from her home.

In November, she expects to harvest her second crop this year. Ms Siama is looking forward to a good harvest, though slightly lower than the past few seasons, despite the Covid-19 pandemic and the low rains.

“This year the rain hasn’t been enough and we have started feeling the impact of the pandemic,” she says.

“In the long season of 2019, I harvested more than 20 tonnes of soybeans and went home with almost Sh500,000. During the short season of the same year, I harvested 18 tonnes.”

Ms Siama has been farming soybeans in the past three years on her four-acre farm and another 20-acre parcel she has rented at Sh4,000 per acre. Using earnings from the venture, she has started other businesses, further boosting her earnings.

“From this, I have a supply store dealing in seed, fertiliser, animal feed, veterinary supplies. I also bought tents and chairs and outside catering equipment which I rent out. I have also been able to help my husband clear our children’s school fees,” she says.

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Ms Roselyne Siama at her soybeans store in her home in Matayos, Busia. PHOTO | POOL

Soybean is a multi-purpose crop, which is mainly used for food, livestock feed, industrial raw material and a source of bio-energy. In the cooking oil industry, the bean is preferred for extraction of the liquid to feed the growing appetite for fewer cholesterol foods.

Currently, soybean farming in Kenya is mostly practised in western — parts of Busia, Kakamega, Homa Bay, Migori and Bungoma.

However, it has been an uphill task convincing Kenyan farmers to take up soybean farming despite the evident benefits. And for years, this reluctance has created a shortage in the country.

“Demand for soybean has been between 3,000– 3,500 metric tonnes per year with Kenya supplying only about 200 metric tonnes,” explains Brighton Ochieng, operations director at Promasidor, a manufacturer and supplier of food products.

According to Jo Ryan, interim CEO at True Trade Africa, a company providing smallholder farmers with a reliable route to market and fair prices for their produce, the failure to promote soybean farming in Kenya has often been attributed to the lack of emphasis on the market resulting in difficulties for farmers to sell surplus production.

“This deficit has pushed soy consumers to look for alternatives. The shortage is so dire that companies have resorted to contracting farmers to grow and supply the crop to them,” says Ms Ryan.

Others have had to import the produce from countries like Uganda, South Africa, and Nigeria.

“The rest of the crop is imported from other countries, mainly Uganda, Tanzania, and Malawi. The main supplier remains in Uganda. On our part, we import 80 percent of our annual demand from Uganda,” says Mr Ochieng.

But even with the imports to bridge the local deficit, there have been some more hurdles.

“For instance, due to Covid-19, which resulted in lockdowns and movement restrictions, the production of soybean dropped. On the other hand, there were cases of Kenyan farmers, especially in Busia, selling their produce in Uganda for more than double the price they were getting here,” says Ms Ryan.

She adds that even though this might have seemed like a kill for many, it was not sustainable, and the worst part is that it made an already dire soybean demand in Kenya, worse, as major consumers became a worried lot.

“We were hoping for a 200 metric tonnes production, but we only got two metric tonnes and this is worrying,” she adds.

She warns of dire repercussions if Kenya does not increase its production soon.

“Being the basis of animal feeds, forming the main protein nutrients, its shortage means that the price of animal feeds is expected to spike further. And this will have a ripple effect in the prices of animal products like milk, meat and eggs, burdening the local citizen even more” she adds.

According to Mr Ochieng, if the situation does not change fast, most of the industry players, off-takers and aggregators will have to close shop as the demand outstrips supply.

“Consumers will also shift to other products if they cannot find what they need on shelves. Imports will be outstripping local output, which ideally drives prices up,” he explains.

To address the biting shortage, True Trade has formed a partnership with farmers to involve them in soybean farming.

“This partnership is about empowering smallholder farmers who form about 70 percent of the population, by providing them access to reliable markets to transform their lives.”

So, how does the whole process work? What happens is that TrueTrade Africa finds the soybean farmers' ready market, then mobilises them to start planting the crop. They do this through their agents who work with farmers.

“The work of the agents is to recruit farmers to get into soybean farming. In the process, the farmers get training on where to get the best seeds, as well as best farming practices to get the best produce,” explains Ms Ryan.

During harvest, the agents visit the farmers, collect the best produce and after quality assurance, the growers are paid through mobile money.

“Mainly our front gate price ranges from Sh40 to Sh45 per kilogramme,” says Ms Ryan.

“It may seem small but that’s a 40 percent profit margin. We usually don’t want to promise farmers something that at the end of the day, we will not be able to fulfill, leaving them stranded with their crops.”

True Trade’s cautionary pricing is part of its strategy to build trust with farmers, especially after being hoodwinked by unscrupulous off-takers who came and convinced them to plant the crop, only to disappear, leaving them with stock they knew not what to do with it.

But also there has been a misconception about the crop. According to Ms Ryan, some farmers have been reluctant to take up soybean farming.

“There is inadequate information about the advantages of the crop,” she says.

Mr Ochieng says there is a lack of appetite among local farmers to grow the crop, as well as education of farmers to understand that there is a ready market for soybean post-harvest.

“There is a lack of understanding that soybean demand is growing with the emergence of animal feed business and texturised soybean meal products.”

Kathia Mwenda, lead consultant agronomist at Aithak Group Limited, says one advantage of soybean farming, is that the crop can be planted for two seasons within one year unlike maize, which is grown for one season.

“In Kenya, soybean is planted between March and July and between September and December.”

Apart from that, he says, in a country where maize farming is valued, there are numerous benefits of maize-soybean strip inter-cropping.

“For instance, there is resources utilisation, weed, pest and disease control, improved soil fertility and nitrogen acquisition, yield and economic benefits,” he says.

It is not an expensive crop to farm, adds Mr Mwenda.

“For one acre, a farmer needs about 20 kilogrammes for planting, which means, if you can afford to grow maize, then you can grow soybean,” he says.

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