Kenyan farmers are yet to harness their potential- Agronomist

By Malachi Motano

Peter Kariuki is freelance agronomist based in Nairobi with bachelor’s degree in Horticulture from Karatina University, with passion for farming. With ten years’ experience with farmers and the industry at large, he shares with the writer on the challenges they face and possible way forward for the sector in a Question (Q) and Answer (A) interview.

Q. Describe farming in Kenya

A. Kenya is a farm lover’s dream: abundant uncultivated arable land, tropical climates that permit long growing seasons; a young labor force; and an expanding population that provides a readily available market for produce consumption. Its major economic pillar is agriculture which is practiced on both large and small scale. However, due to the many challenges farmers face, the sector is yet to harness these opportunities to ensure sustainable food security and food production.

Q. Talking of challenges, highlight some of the common cases?

A. Farmers experience myriad of challenges which include Poor infrastructure in some pans of the country, unstable prices both at the local and international  markets, unpredictable weather patterns(drought/famine), pests and diseases, poor technologies, ethnic clashes, increasing population, corruption, high costs, and Shortage of agricultural extension officers.

Agronomists Peter inspects Capsicum

Q. Poor infrastructure?

A. Poor rural roads and other key physical infrastructure have led to high transportation costs for agricultural inputs and products. It also leads to spoilage of perishable commodities during transportation. This causes high losses to farmers.

Q. Price fluctuations?

A. The unstable prices of agricultural commodities on the local/world market has discouraged farmers. This is contributed to by overproduction of similar agricultural products which leads to wastage due to lack of buyers or sell at throw-away prices. 

Q. Pests and diseases?

A.  Pests and diseases have continued to cause a lot of losses to farmers. This is caused by lack of information by the farmers on how to control these diseases. Post-harvest losses are caused by poor handling and storage facilities. Many farmers in Kenya have lost their produce to pests due to lack of proper handling especially during storage. Extension services can be instrumental in helping reducing pre and post-harvest losses.

Q. Do farmers accept and embrace technology?

A. While the country has a well-developed agricultural research system, use of modern science and technology in agricultural production is still limited. Inadequate research–extension–farmer linkages to facilitate demand-driven research and increased use of improved technologies continue to constrain efforts to increase agricultural productivity as farmers continue to use outdated and ineffective technologies. This brings the need of extension services that can link research and the farmers.

Agronimist peter and the Brocolli

Q. What about Climate change?

A. The effect of climate change is felt mostly by the farmers especially due to dependence on rain-fed agriculture. The changing and unpredictable raining seasons has greatly affected their ability to plant their farming activities. Areas which received adequate rainfall now receive insufficient rainfall reducing the land that can support agriculture, calling more exploitation on irrigation farming especially in the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs). It is estimated that intensified irrigation can increase agricultural productivity fourfold and, depending on the crops, incomes can be multiplied 10 times.  The government should fast-track the rejuvenation of existing irrigation projects and increasing water.

Q. Extension services?

A. The Kenyan government through its agricultural extension officers have not been doing active work in helping farmers and giving them the necessary education needed to improve their crop yields. There is also limited access to extension services since the number of officers is small serving a very wide area.

There is limited access to extension services in most parts of the country with the National extension staff: farmer ratio standing at 1: 1,500. This situation has hindered most farmers from keeping pace with changing technological advances. In the farming sector extension service plays a key role in disseminating knowledge, technologies and agricultural information, and in linking farmers with other actors in the economy.

The extension service is one of the critical change agents required in transforming subsistence farming to a modern and commercial agriculture to promote household food security, improve income and reduce poverty. However, there is therefore need for recruitment of more extension staff and the involvement of NGO’s to increase access of extension services to farmers since education and access to information are crucial.

 Agrovets are popping up in most rural villages, and they are being trained to offer extension services. The number of extension services is increasing. The Internet and mobile phone technology services in Kenya are very advanced.

Q. The use of farming inputs

A. Most farmers lack information on the right type of farm inputs to use and the appropriate time of application of the same. The cost of key inputs such as seed, pesticides, fertilizer is high for resource-poor farmers. Most farmers therefore do not use them. This greatly reduces the yield that the farmers get.

Q. Soil nutrient deterioration?

A. The rising population density has contributed to the subdivision of land to uneconomically small units. In addition, the reduction of fallow periods and continuous cultivation have led to rapid depletion of soil nutrients, declining yields and environmental degradation. These farmers need information on the right farming practices aimed and restoring the soil nutrient which can be provided by extension and advisory services.

Soil health is critical for long term sustainable farming and increased outputs. Soil mapping at county level, with proper fertilizer blending is crucial. Soil types in Kenya are very variable and fertilizers that are suitable in one region can be detrimental in another.  Some agricultural zones are very acidic due to years of over-use of fertilizer; and liming can more than triple yields in these areas.

Q. Access to clean seed and crop selection?

A. Variety selection, breeding and testing new strains, access to clean seed in the major crops, is critical and being addressed by the various Institutes and organisations. Crop selection is very important for successful farming in a country like Kenya which has a massive variation in climatic zones, altitudes, soil types and rainfall. Regional trials are needed to identify appropriate crops.

Q. Land ownership issues and access to finance?

A. Land tenure and ownership are important. Improving farm infrastructure and soil health through better farming practices and fertility correction inputs is an expensive long term project, with a long pay-back time, not promoted by short term occupancy. Land ownership gives access to finance. Access to finance and excessive interest rates is a major stumbling block for agriculture that has recently been addressed in a new bill from parliament.

Q. Call to action?

A. The stakeholders (government, NGO’s, development partners and farmers) should invest heavily in the farming/agricultural sector since it is the only field that feeds everybody. During the wake of Covid-19 pandemic, when companies were sending employees to compulsory leafs or offering pay cuts, this is the only industry that provided living alternative. Majority agri-business supply chain.

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