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 years ago.
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
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 positive results.
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 markets
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 this system.
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 Mix’.
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
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.
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
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 pigs’
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.