Known as Kenya's leading foreign exchange earner, since 2018, the horticultural sector has contributed a significant percentage to the agriculture GDP. In 2021, the sub-sector brought the country $1.39 billion in earnings.
But despite the opportunities the sector has created, it is now facing various challenges due to a lack of market information, stiff competition, a lack of marketing skills and exploitation by intermediaries.
Most farmers from Kenya who are exporting their products to the European Union (EU) market are often frustrated when their export products are rejected. Although the EU standards are clear, many exporters still lack the necessary data and knowledge to face competitiveness in this vital market effectively.
As a result, the sector is often impacted negatively. The recent data released by the Horticulture Directorate reveals that earnings from the first half of this year dropped by 36.3 per cent from Sh87.6 billion in 2021 to Sh55.8 billion in 2022. The Directorate attributed the fall to a decline in the export volume of fruits, vegetables, and flowers.
Most European importers are telling us that farmers are harvesting their produce too early, affecting grading. The size, texture, and shape are also not done well. The other challenge is the post-harvest, where handling, including transportation, especially of the fruits, is wanting.
There is also a lack of adherence to sustainability protocols. As a result, the ripening of the product is not uniform to the customer's desired needs. Since the market is also measuring pesticide residues, water sustainability, soil preservation, food miles, and other non-compliance is no longer an option.
But despite all these challenges, not everything is gloom and doom. In the recent past, earnings in avocadoes have improved due to enhanced quality. Compliance with the sector standards by the industry players is increasing.
Some farmers now see the benefits of taking time to understand market requirements and responding to customer needs. Virtually everyone looks out for the market requirement needs, which is playing a significant amount of data and knowledge on what other value chain actors want.
While it is not possible to harness all that data. A 2019 World Bank report, Future of Food: Harnessing Digital Technologies to Improve Food System Outcomes, says that by providing, processing, and analyzing an ever-increasing amount of data more quickly, digital technologies can help farmers make more accurate decisions on resource management.
And they are potentially making small-scale producers more competitive. They can also significantly lower the costs of connecting sellers and buyers.
Kenya must leverage technology to completely integrate agricultural produce's supply and demand chain to avoid any doubts impacting the sector. And must enhance smart agriculture as a profession among the youth. Learning from experience in other parts of the world, emerging technologies may significantly improve the entire agricultural value chain.
For example, effective use of timely and quality data can help farmers improve traceability, especially for high-value biological crop protection. And embrace technology that improves resource efficiency and sustainability while, at the same time, increasing farmers' income and production by reducing waste.
The EU has already communicated in its new trade policy review, which is aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to partner countries, including Kenya.
Such regulations are the deforestation rules, a regulation meant to prevent deforestation and forest degradation associated with commodities (beef, wood, palm oil, soya, coffee, and cocoa).
Besides shifting the regulatory environment, consumer preferences also keep changing, presenting market uncertainties to farmers.
Therefore, the most critical area is knowledge access to farmers and all middlemen. Frequent changes in a changing world are necessary. And without a response to emerging changes, one can quickly lose the market.
Opportunities in the EU market are immense. However, access to this market faces competition and increasing demand regarding standards and regulations. The secret is compliance and consistency to achieving success.
Kenya can increase its market share through diversification and value addition by providing knowledge about regulations and informing farmers and value chain actors.