In the last week or so, we’ve heard numerous commentaries as to why MNCs such as KFC imports farm produce from other countries as opposed to buying locally. While this conversation has been about potatoes, it’s really the story of Kenyan, and dare I say African horticulture. While this is a deep-rooted issue that has been discussed for decades, here we will be looking at what practical solutions we can deploy to make Kenyan horticulture more competitive in the local and international markets.
First, we describe the real situation of Kenya’s agricultural set-up as we know it: As one @TimKipchumba noted on Twitter a few days ago, the production of potatoes and by extension most other produce is highly fragmented with millions of small-scale farmers being involved. This means it's almost impossible to have standardization of inputs, production process, output, and even post-harvest handling. Add the fact that infrastructure and policy are also lagging and you have an industry that underperforms both in quality and quantity and from whatever these farmers produce approximately 30% goes to waste due to poor post-harvest handling.
What we can do:
We have too many farmers operating on ‘he said, she said’ information for a country with so many research institutions. It is not that information is not available, it's mostly that it rarely reaches the farmer and if it does it's not on time. It should be considered the responsibility of all, especially those who profit from the sector to pass this useful information on time.
2. Develop and implement policy to safeguard local agriculture against itself and against external forces.
The subject of standards is necessary for all industries but more so in the food industry. From seed quality, agro-inputs, and handling. Making sure farmers know the basics surely isn’t too much to ask. Moreso, these standards translate to better quality and quantity produce both of which would fetch farmers higher returns. Who wouldn’t want that?
3. Develop and invest in digital technologies to improve information flow and traceability of farm produce from farm to fork.
Digital technologies ease the cost and time of transferring information to and from the remotest of places. From information about which farmer has what produce ready to which buyer is paying what price for that produce, or what disease outbreak farmers need to be on alert about to cloud-based storage of a farms historical data we can ensure that farming isn’t gambling but data-backed business.
4. To invest in the last mile post-harvest handling technologies
From our learnings at Plusfarm Kenya while exploring the potential of solar cooling for last-mile cold storage; no one should underestimate the importance of storage facilities for farm produce especially for products with shorter shelf lives such as fruits and vegetables. But there is something I strongly believe could do more to help shorten value chains!
5. Bring the value addition industries closer to farmers and you have fresh raw materials hence higher quality final product.
Yes, I know it’s not black and white, but lets at least give it a try. We can cut food loss by half just by doing this.
Back to the KFC story and traceability. @iamkathambi on Twitter explained that MNCs name the lack of traceability as probably the biggest hurdle while sourcing locally. While end-to-end traceability systems are challenging and expensive to implement, modern technologies such as digital and blockchain make these systems available for farmers everywhere and anywhere at a fraction of the cost. Traceability systems can prove supplier compliance with standards and regulations and/or verify the geographic origin. This verification benefits small-scale farmers by helping to integrate them into regional and global supply chains.
At Plusfarm for instance, we enable farmers to record all activities they undertake in the crop production process digitally through our farm management software PAMS (https://pamskenya.com/), the resulting seasonal reports can accompany the harvested crops in form of soft copies, hard copies, or even better can be packaged in QR codes. Making traceability from anywhere in the world to that farm is easy-peasy. Imagine the opportunities this could open for smallholder farmers everywhere.
Follow us on our social medial platforms to participate in this and other hot agricultural discussions.
CEO, Plusfarm Kenya
One of the most used lines in the African agriculture space is ‘the average age of the African farmer is 60 years and above...’ and goes on to indicate youth reluctance in joining the industry. This is a discussion of this scenario as we see it, share and comment don’t make this a monologue.
Let’s get to it.
Numerous reports and journals paint similar pictures of this situation while emphasizing the immense potential of the industry. The most current I have read was from the Syngenta Foundation, a publication on digital agriculture (2021) in which the authors note that “Agriculture is a fundamental instrument for development and poverty reduction in developing countries”.
What these reports do not capture is how the older generation of farmers and the potential next generations feel about this situation. In my experience and I will quote a farmer I talked to last week, “Today’s agriculture is akin to gambling; no assured markets as before, erratic weather patterns and untrustworthy value chain operators”. To elaborate, not so long ago, maize farmers in the Rift Valley region of Kenya went to farms to grow for an assured buyer in the government, that buyer is no longer assured and more often than not seems to be marred by procurement controversies year after year. Secondly, agronomy which was once offered exclusively by the national government to farmers is now being offered largely by sales agronomists keen on moving their respective products which makes it extremely biased, and finally, climate change is here with us hitting the African farmer the most even though he probably contributes the least to global warming.
On the other end, Millennials and Generation Z are looking for fast-moving highly profitable ventures to jump into. They expect a high level of returns for the high level of risks they take. We are talking about the same generation that is investing in cryptocurrencies here. In Kenya in particular the gambling industry is booming, which indicates that these young people are not afraid of taking risks as long as the potential returns are high. Unfortunately, Africa’s agriculture as-is is a high-risk low-profit affair.
The generational transition must happen for Africa’s agriculture to survive. The farmers we have talked to are desperate for their sons and daughters to take over, while the sons and daughters we are talking to are reluctant to enter the industry as is.
In my opinion, there is no better incentive than making the industry more profitable. Here are my pointers on how I think we can make that happen sooner than later.
When you hear informal businesses, you think of the Jua kali sector and the like, but really if you observe and think about it the agricultural sector in Kenya isn’t any different. It’s unregulated, disorganized, has little or no division between labour and capital, and labour relations are based on casual and kinship rather than contractual arrangements.
So, it’s only fair if the first area of focus becomes formalizing agribusiness ventures to not only legitimize them but also enable access to finance and markets. At Plusfarm, we offer business modeling services starting from facilitating and supporting farmers to register their farms as business entities thus kick-starting this formalization process. Younger farmers in particular seem to prefer adding services such as branding and digital marketing of their ventures to sell online and be seen by their peers. Go figure.
Access to finance is one of the most effective drivers of business growth, any business. However, agriculture has been underserved in this regard. For instance, according to a FinAccess 2019 report, only 3.2% of Kenya farmers used formal borrowing to finance their agricultural operations. The choice of the capital source to finance agriculture is largely determined by the ease of accessing credit. Most farmers have limited choices and are forced to put up with whatever is available. Clearly, Financial Institutions are not going to offer credit to unformalized establishments. Although startups are mushrooming in the sector promising to disrupt and help poor farmers access capital, they are evidently struggling to do so.
The best finance policy-benefit mix to expand financial inclusion to include farmers must be put in place, with formalization and data sharing across service providers encouraged instead of every new entrant profiling farmers afresh, even the farmers are tired of it. Through self-operated and free-to-use platforms such as Plusfarm’s PAMS farmers can profile themselves and their farms, record daily activities, and download pdf reports to share with anyone they would like. This way their data can actually help access financing from financial institutions.
Tools do really make work easier.
Because of the fragmented nature of Africa’s agriculture, shared models for mechanical tools like Hello Tractor seem to me as the most logical approach in our setting, that is technology as a service. Digital platforms on the other hand give farmers the opportunity to access services, such as; agronomy, labour, markets, or finances with little or no delay at all. This is important as in most instances decisions and actions are as effective as the speed at which they are implemented. To this end, PAMS offers profiling of agronomists based on location and specialty giving farmers access to unbiased, reliable, and affordable agronomy services wherever they are whenever they need them.
I must stress, and correct me if I’m wrong, to enable this generational transition in the scale that can have any meaningful impact, skills, policy, and technology are our best bets. Skills to the younger generation to not only farm but also seek employment in the sector, policy to promote access to finance regardless of race, tribe, gender, or age, and technology to make it all work with speed, efficiency, and affordability. This will translate to higher returns thus attracting youth to agriculture.
As usual, like, share, and comment through our various social media platforms.
CEO, Plusfarm Kenya