Here’s our plan to lift up farmers

15 Jul 2019

The rains have become erratic, new pests and diseases are emerging and there is an influx of food imports. Farmers are squeezed and in dire need of government action. What is your word to them?

I agree that our agriculture is ailing. About 98 per cent of our farming is smallholder and 2 per cent large-scale. However, the 98 per cent produce 70 per cent of our cereals while the 2 per cent produce 30 per cent. To transform our agriculture, we have to shift the smallholder farmers (below 20 acres) to high value crops (not maize) and make maize and other cereals large-scale crops as they were meant to be.

Usually, smallholder farmers are highly inefficient as they are largely not mechanised and are challenged by knowledge gaps. In our recently developed agriculture sector strategy of 2019-2029, we are proposing to come up with 50 new large-scale farms and also designing medium-scale farms (30 acres to 100 acres) to increase production and create more jobs. Eventually, we have to move the smallholder farmers away from farming into jobs as we industrialise. All societies that have developed have had to make this transition.

The government allocated agriculture Sh51.7 billion in the recently unveiled Sh3.02 trillion 2019/2020 budget. With this small amount, is the government really keen on implementing its radical proposals to lift the sector?

To realize the Big Four agriculture agenda, we have to implement the Agriculture Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy (ASTGS) in full. Of course this needs much more resources. The Sh51.7 billion is barely 1.6 per cent of the budget, way below the 10 per cent of public spending promised under the Malabo Declaration of 2014.

To fund the ASTGS, we need roughly Sh200 billion annually, much of it through private-public projects and development partners. But as a government, we also have to play our facilitative role, especially when it comes to supporting the smallholder enterprise. The good thing is that a shilling invested in agriculture will come back and even be multiplied because it is one of the productive sectors that create wealth and employment for the people.

The disconnect between research and extension is big. Does the government care about these two services anymore?

Agriculture extension barely exists. It is not financed very well and neither is research. Agriculture is a technical undertaking and it is knowledge-intensive. The Kenyan smallholder farmer struggles from the start as they do not have superior genetics (seed, animal or fish), they have poor soil management skills and struggle with timing, weather, pest and disease control and recently the erratic behaviour of the weather (climate change). Only 1 per cent of the agriculture budget goes to extension. About 12 to 20 per cent goes to agriculture research/knowledge, but not to the real work. Instead, it goes to paying salaries of Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) employees.

In the ASTGS, we are proposing programmes to train 3,000 extension workers to cover the country properly. The national government is working closely with the county governments using some of the donor-funded projects to address challenges in specific value chains. But we must invest more in research and extension if we are to transform the smallholder farmer. We are experimenting with digital tools to reach the farmer. Farmers can SMS the word “farm” to 40130 to see some of the solutions that the ministry has developed to reach them.

Our agriculture has been rain-fed for long but it is certain we have to shift from this trend due to climate change. Irrigation is the way to go but the technology remains expensive …

We have planned investments in new irrigation schemes, desilting of old colonial dams and intensifying household water pans to boost household irrigation. Apart from that, we also have support of World Bank and the African Development Bank to build resilience in arid and semi-arid communities. Water and soil conservation are key to sustainable agriculture and we are working with Kalro and other development partners to intensify conservation agriculture in the country.

The bulk of the food sold in the local market does not meet safety standards. Is the government eager to enhance the quality of food in the local market?

The Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) is putting in place regulations to guarantee Kenyans safe food. We are also working with the Ministry of Health to put in place a consolidated robust food agency that will coordinate food safety issues. Currently, a number of agencies such as the Kenya Bureau of Standards, Department of Public Health, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services and the Department of Veterinary Services are responsible for different components of food safety. In the next 60 days, we will focus on realigning and sharpening our food safety system.

The government plans to operationalise the commodity exchange by January next year. What should farmers look forward to?

This is a very progressive step. It has taken over 10 years for the country to adopt the warehouse receipting system, which anchors the commodity exchange. Through this, we hope to improve access to finance and markets for farmers through the warehouse receipts.

Agricultural commodities like maize will in future be traded through the exchange, and prices of commodities will be much better.

There are many campaigns to attract more youths into agriculture, yet it remains an optional subject in schools. Do you think the ministry should push for  agriculture to be a compulsory subject to address the jobs crisis and boost food security in the long-term?

To be a farmer, you do not have to have studied agriculture. I think the reason the youth opt not to take agriculture in college is that there are few formal jobs in the sector since 98 per cent of our farmers are smallholders.

Despite the fact that agriculture is responsible for 33 per cent of the gross domestic product, there are only 350,000 formal jobs in the sector. Investment in medium and large-scale farms will increase demand for agriculture graduates. Further, in our ASTGS, our first pillar proposes creation of 1,000 farmer-related small enterprises such as agrovets, mechanisation services, off-takers and processors and most of the youthd can find their calling in some of these enterprises. The ministry is working to come up with the Kenya Agriculture Transformation Fund (KATF) to support the financing of small and medium-sized farms and also fund the other farmer-facing SMES. This will help to fill the funding gaps since agriculture attracts only 3 per cent of financing from banks as it is considered risky. The KATF is, therefore, key to unlocking financing for agriculture SMES. It is alarming that the average farmer is 60 years, while the average consumer is 17 years old. We will address the bottlenecks that hinder the youth from venturing into the agriculture sector, which include lack of access to land, finances, machinery and low level of knowledge.

Most farmers sell their produce raw, yet they can add value and make more money. Can the government help?

The ministry is in discussions with the African Development Bank to finance the design and setting up of agro-processing parks in six regions alongside the regional economic blocks. For agro-parks to emerge, they need a steady supply of enough quality raw materials. We are faced with a chicken and egg situation, because agro-parks need inputs and farmers need markets for their produce. Pillar three of the agriculture sector strategy gives elaborate proposals and identifies zones where the proposed agro-parks should be located and the mechanisms for setting them up. This is going to be a very exciting space in the coming years as we seek to support the manufacturing pillar of the Big Four agenda.

Land sizes are shrinking and real estate development is taking over agricultural land. Does this worry you?

Yes, it worries me. Land fragmentation is a danger to agriculture. Economies of scale are important. In some of the places where the land size has shrunk to less than quarter of an acre, we may as well refer to this as gardening and not farming.

We must rethink our land policies and spatial planning. The counties and the Lands ministry must secure agricultural land.

Only 10 per cent of Kenya is suitable for growing crops. Apart from land, other issues that are of concern are climate change, the state of our soils, overuse of pesticides (which is killing pollinators like bees) and general land and environmental degradation. Sustainability of the agriculture enterprise will depend on the society embracing solutions and technologies that are designed to mitigate some of the challenges.