Posted March 20, 2003: Imagine yourself
in Kalumbe village – astride the equator in western
Kenya. You own 2,500 square meters of land, a strip 25 by
100 meters long. A plot smaller than a football pitch/field.
On it you must support your wife and five children, raise
a crop that will pay for their school fees, let alone fix
up the house which needs a new roof. This is the prospect
Charles Mwoshi faced when his mother gave him the plot two
Western Kenya has one of the highest population densities
anywhere in rural Africa. Land holdings have been subdivided
with each new generation to near postage stamp-size plots.
Farms range from one-quarter to one-sixteenth of a hectare.
Times are hard on the thousands of tiny farms like that of
Charles Mwoshi. He had little hope of raising a large enough
crop to provide for his family – that is until his farmers’
group became involved in a local training program promoting
organic farming and more effective local marketing. Now Charles
earns a modest income from carefully tended vegetable beds
and is even buying livestock and household appliances.
Kenya has a 17-year history of institutional development
for promoting organic and sustainable agriculture. Five major
players in the field are Kitale-based Manor House Agricultural
Center, Baraka College in Molo, the Sustainable Agriculture
Community Development Program in Thika, the Kenya Institute
of Organic Farming (KIOF), a training center on the outskirts
Kenya’s capitol Nairobi, and the Association for Better
Land Husbandry (ABLH), headquartered in Nairobi.
All of these organizations have attracted major support from
American and European donors, without whose long-term investment
much less progress would have been made. Side-by-side with
these national groups are dozens of local organizations, scattered
across the country, practicing and teaching environmentally
sound farming techniques. Many of these groups employ diploma
holders from Manor House, Baraka or KIOF.
Then there are the farmers themselves – like Charles
Mwoshi – who benefit from the training provided by these
centers. Today they apply skills learned in hundreds of training
courses on thousands of small farms, from the shores of Lake
Victoria to the Indian Ocean coast. Taken together they encompass
a formidable movement which is finally beginning to influence
Kenya’s national agricultural policy. At it’s
Kitale Field Station, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute
has initiated comparative trials on effects of cover crops
and compost on soil organic matter and yields of maize, with
The missing link: Markets and Infrastructure
One crucial area that most of these training institutions
have so far failed to address is the need to work side-by-side
with farmer’s groups on marketing their crops. Eliud
Ngunjiri, a director with Britain’s largest private
relief agency Oxfam, says “If you invest in these farmers
with training and technical support so they achieve better
yields and lower input costs, but then go away without addressing
the need for marketing that produce, you haven’t finished
the journey.” Mr. Ngunjiri ran Oxfam’s agricultural
program for over 12 years before establishing his own support
organization – Resources Oriented Development Initiatives
– in 1998. He is also keen on the concept of linking
small-scale farmers with big urban markets, but knows that
it takes a long-term commitment and heavy investment.
Connecting rural farmers with urban
The basic concept is simple: identify products that small-scale
farmers know how to grow in quantity, give them a hand with
proper processing and attractive packaging, then find a local
market for the goods. ‘Value adding’ are the key
words. Use local cottage-industry-level (labor intensive)
processing. Ensure that the produce is organically grown (or
aiming toward organic), which makes it good for the environment,
the grower and consumer alike, and – with some slick
advertising – everyone will rush to buy it.
Putting this idea into practice is of course much less straightforward.
It needs years of effort, skilled staff, a lot of local organizing
and donor commitment. There’s little doubt that the
creation of a national health food industry holds the promise
of higher incomes for tens of thousands of struggling farmers.
What is harder to accept is that Kenyan institutions have
the means to rapidly develop this new industry. Let’s
have a closer look at what it takes to penetrate the local
market for the sake of Kenya’s small farmers.
One organization making a go of it is the Association for
Better Land Husbandry. ABLH was set up in 1993 to help small-scale
farmers improve soil fertility, cut down on their use of commercial
fertilizer and pesticides, and form small business groups
to pool labor, resources and produce for more efficient local
marketing. During the past ten years, ABLH implemented a broad
range of training programs to address the varied needs of
the small-scale farming sector.
ABLH realizes this isn’t enough. Helping thousands
of farmers pull themselves out of the poverty trap requires
getting better prices and reliable buyers, as well as ensuring
a steady, quality supply of crops like macadamia nuts, soy
beans and even exportable French beans. A decentralized processing,
packaging and marketing infrastructure was needed –
and the capital to build and test it. In 1999, a limited company
was founded as a subsidiary to ABLH – under the name
‘Farmer’s Own’ – to set up and manage
In 2001, Farmer’s Own launched a new line of wholesome,
ecologically grown food products, under the label ‘Conservation
Supreme' and aimed at the Nairobi market. (For more on this
label, see the box at left.) Being new in town, Farmer’s
Own faced the challenge of attracting consumer loyalty –
and gaining a foothold on the slippery big-buyer turf called
‘market share’ – for its products. Six months
later, several nut snacks (called ‘Mr. Brittle’)
and jams, a health drink and a soy-based gravy-mix/food-enhancer,
are beginning to compete successfully. Only time will tell
if there is a healthy growth in demand for the Farmer’s
Own brand products.
the goods to consumers
Nairobi residents don’t have to look very hard to find
these products. More than 80 retail food markets around town
now stock Farmer’s Own brands – from Buru Buru
to Lavington, Adam’s Arcade to Zucchini’s.
Just what is behind the colorful ‘Mr. Brittle’
box and the bright red ‘Nutri-mchuzi Mix’ tubs?
There are three offices, two processing centers, a fleet of
yellow Farmer’s Own delivery pickups, and six full-time
staff. In short, a professionally managed production system
that reaches right back to Charles Mwoshi’s vegetable
beds in Vihiga – and Mr. Kamiti’s macadamia trees
near Mount Kenya. These and hundreds of other farmers like
them now have access to the Farmer’s Own infrastructure,
something they couldn’t establish on their own.
Many agricultural projects are still trying to convince farmers
of the promise of growing soybeans – the worlds most
popular high-protein crop. Meanwhile ABLH has taken the more
critical step of converting the raw beans into a form that
urban housewives can easily use: high-protein gravy mix. Every
week, several hundred kilos of the beans are bought from farmers
groups, sorted, cooked, dried, then milled into flour and
blended with other ingredients to make ‘Nutri-mchuzi
Using a British government grant to recruit extension staff
and set up two processing centers, ABLH is beginning to close
the gap between Kenya’s largest market for processed
foods – Nairobi – and the cash- and land-starved
rural farming communities. (Nairobi’s population is
3 million and growing fast.)
ABLH staff do a tremendous amount of work to reduce this
gap: training farmers in business and conservation farming
skills; local processing and marketing; product testing and
development; packaging and transport; distribution to Nairobi
outlets and periodic promotional campaigns. Not to mention
fundraising, monitoring and reporting to donors.
Large farmers associations make
all the difference
An essential factor in this complex equation is the ‘Farmers
Action Associations,’ formal alliances of farmers’
groups that pool resources for better efficiency and greater
impact. On its own, a self-help group cannot muster the capital
or skills to meet Farmer’s Own quality and quantity
requirements. By bringing together as many as a dozen groups
into a Farmers Action Association (similar to a cooperative),
the demands are more manageable. Training activities and produce
collection become more efficient. ABLH currently works with
eleven associations. One of these is supplying Everest Ltd.
(one of Kenya’s leading produce exporters) with French
beans – grown using far less than the recommended quantities
of fertilizer and pesticides.
This farmers association formula has worked well in other
countries – with and without external support. More
common in West Africa, such associations are the driving force
behind hundreds of successful marketing efforts, including
the well-known community cereal banks in Mali and Senegal.
One large farmer’s federation in eastern Senegal is
even producing organic cotton for a Dakar-based spinner.
Once an FAA achieves basic skills in management, accounting,
crop production and handling, it develops a business plan
with Farmer’s Own and begins selling its fruits, nuts
or other crops to the Kakamega and Kerugoya processing centers.
The end result is increasing incomes for the farmer groups
and their individual members. A typical grower can double
his or her annual earnings, on the same small plot.
200 million-shilling question
Could training and strengthening these farmers groups and
setting up such an infrastructure have happened without the
British Department for International Development’s capital
investment of about two hundred million shillings (US $2.6
million) over four years? Of course not. A more pertinent
question might be: Will local venture capital holders and
private sector companies buy into the business when the donor
pulls out? So far, there don’t appear to be any takers.
A second phase of funding will be crucial for consolidating
the foundation ABLH has built, and seeing it safely on the
road to sustainability.
For other potential players in the local health food marketing
game, there might be a Catch-22 lurking around the bend. If
Farmer’s Own is successful, imitators may not be willing
or able to make the start-up investment without a low-interest
loan from some generous financier. Borrowing the money from
commercial banks at 19% interest would likely be financial
suicide. ABLH does have plans to begin selling shares of Farmer’s
Own back to farmers, giving them equity and a greater stake
in the success of the company, but this method of raising
share capital will not be tested until the Farmers Action
Associations have built bigger bank accounts.
‘A new TV, a bull and three
Imagine yourself back in Kalumbe village in Vihiga. You’re
visiting Charles Mwoshi and some of his fellow farmers. He
has more than fifty raised beds under bio-intensive vegetable
production, using about two thirds of those 2500 square meters
of precious land. There is enough room left for a stall-fed
cow and a few pigs, which he feeds with thinnings from his
vegetable beds. Each of those beds generates $25 to $30 worth
of Conservation Supreme produce per season, enough income
to pay school fees for two children. Charles proudly says
“with last year’s income I have bought a new television
set, a bull and three pigs.”
The next time I wander into the local supermarket, I will
go to the condiments section and buy a jar of ‘Tropical
Delight’ jam or a container of ‘Hibiscus Cool’
drink. Although I may not be entirely convinced that the Hibiscus
Cool will “reduce stress, ease indigestion and uplift
mood” [according to the label] I am gratified to know
that a higher percentage of the price I’ve paid goes
to the farmers who grow it, and whose livelihoods remain the
backbone of Kenya’s rural economy.