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What is locking farmers out of the huge Indian pulses market

Monday April 25 2016

Anthony Munene (left) and a farm worker

Anthony Munene (left) and a farm worker harvesting healthy purple and yellow beans. PHOTO | SARAH OOKO. 

ISAIAH ESIPISU
By ISAIAH ESIPISU
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Poor soil fertility management, bad agronomical practices and lack of appropriate seeds that can withstand common diseases are denying Kenyan farmers a chance to sell their pulses to the multi-million shillings market in India.

Experts note that Kenya has the suitable ecological environment for growing beans and other pulses, but the challenges have conspired to lock farmers out of the fast-growing Indian market.

With a booming population of more than 1.2 billion, India in mid-2015 announced its intention to import 4 million metric tonnes (MT) of pulses that include beans, dry beans, horse beans, dry chickpeas, cow peas, dry lentils, lupines, dry peas, pigeon peas, and vetches annually particularly from Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

Notably, in 2013/14, India consumed a total of 21.5 million MT of pulses, which is much more than what the Asian country produces locally. With the ever-growing population, this consumption is expected to top 30 million MT by 2025.

The scenario presents a massive opportunity for smallholder farmers but productivity remains far below average, with the available stocks not being able to satisfy the local market.

SOUND ECOLOGICAL ENVIRONMENT

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“As a country, we have the ability to tap into this market given the sound ecological environment for growing pulses, but what farmers are producing is not anywhere near what they should be producing,” said Anthony Kioko, the CEO of Cereal Growers Association.

Martins Odendo, the principal economist at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) in Kakamega, noted that the average yield of bush beans, which is the most common of the pulses in the country, is 0.2MT per hectare, more than seven times below average.

“If farmers used certified seeds with good agronomic practices and soil fertility management, they can easily harvest up to 1.5MT of beans per hectare or more, depending on the variety,” said Odendo.

In 2013, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Kenyan farmers cultivated pulses on 1.47 million hectares of land and produced 758,000 tonnes.

Domestic production is largely dominated by dry beans (529,000 tonnes), followed by cowpeas (122,000), pigeon peas (73,000) and chickpeas (50,000), all which are candidates for the new Indian market.

If this was to improve seven folds, it means that the country will be able to produce over 5 million MT of the cereals, which is sufficient for the local and export markets.

URGENT NEED FOR TRAINING

To reach that scale, Odendo pointed out that there is urgent need for training of smallholder farmers so that they can understand that pulses can be managed as a cash crop, and not just as an alternative crop.

“It is a culture for smallholder farmers to intercrop bush beans with maize, sugarcane or other cash crops. That leads to poor yields of the pulses because in such scenarios, main attention is given to the host cash crop while the pulses are considered as just an additional crop,” said Odendo.

According to Kioko, farmers also need to understand that using certified seeds has a positive impact on the yield of pulses.

“Pulses are self-pollinating plants, hence, farmers end up recycling seeds every season, which has a huge negative impact on their yields,” he said.

However, despite availability of certified seeds, which have been developed by Kalro and other research institutions, most agro-dealers avoid stocking them because unlike hybrid maize seeds, which farmers must buy every season, seeds for pulses can easily be recycled, denying the dealers a sustainable business opportunity.

But for a good yield that can convert the pulses into a meaningful cash crop, experts advise that farmers must embrace certified seeds resistant to diseases like root-rot, plant in time, and apply appropriate fertilisers, particularly those with the phosphorus component for firm root development.

ENOUGH SEMI ARID LAND

Kenya has enough semi-arid land, which is suitable for production of pulses, and this presents a huge opportunity for production of the cereals.

To open the links for the export market, UKaid has funded a programme known as Supporting India’s Trade and Investment for Africa (SITA), and is implemented by the Eastern Africa Grain Council in partnership with the International Trade Centre.

The overall objective of the five-year project, which kicked off mid-2015, is to address the agricultural trade imbalance between India and East Africa by boosting the latter’s exports to India.

One of the major problems of the pulses industry in Kenya is that it is relatively unstructured and poorly organised, partly resulting from low levels of cooperation among the different actors and a lack of trust among the different players operating in the sector.

So far, the 68th UN General Assembly has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses with an aim of heightening public awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production aimed towards food security and nutrition.

The year will also create a unique opportunity to encourage connections throughout the food chain that would better utilise pulse-based proteins, further global production of pulses, better utilise crop rotations and address the challenges in the trade of pulses.