Growing organic in Kenya

Forging the missing link: New efforts to build sustainable local markets for thousands of small-scale farmers in Kenya

By Bob Wagner

Setting Standards for
Sustainable Farming in Kenya

Three organizations in Kenya certify and brand products as sustainable or organic:

1. Conservation Supreme
This is Farmer’s Own’s standard, with a logo that appears on all products being marketed under the name. It indicates that there are measurable reductions in use of chemical fertilizers – most farmers use a combination of compost, animal manure or crop rotation to maintain fertility and replace macronutrients. Farmers also only use synthetic pesticides as a last resort to save the crop, relying instead on natural repellents and controls such as neem. Farmers also use IPM techniques that rely on better understanding of pest lifecycles and ways to attract pest predators like wasps, spiders and insectivorous birds. Synthetic herbicides are prohibited. A published version of these standards is available from ABLH.

2. Soil Association – UK Organic Standards
This certification stipulates that NO commercial fertilizer or synthetic pesticide be used at ANY stage of crop production, storage, processing or packaging. Field visits by licensed certification specialists (there are three of four resident in Kenya) confirm farmer practices as chemical free. Detailed questionnaires are completed and sent to UK for a Soil Association Review Committee to approve or reject. The process is lengthy and costly ($325 for the inspection, but this fee can be divided among a group of farmers seeking certification) and is only necessary for those wishing to export products to British or Continental European markets.

3. FPEAK “Code of Practice” standards
A completely different standard developed with USAID support for Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya members. The code’s goal is to raise the profile and competitiveness of Kenyan horticultural exports on European markets. As such it will only be of interest to groups seeking to export their produce. Verification of compliance is handled on a fee basis by the Brussels-based Society General de Surveillance/International Certification Service.













“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.”
















“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.”

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 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 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 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.

Delivering 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 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.

The 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 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.