Kenya is struggling to feed herself despite her huge arable land. Low mechanisation uptake and lack of capital are some of the challenges. Jacqueline Kubania spoke to Sir Gordon Conway, a professor of International Development and the Director of Agriculture for Impact, an organisation charged with securing European support for agricultural development in Africa
Women are disadvantaged in many sectors, including agriculture where they are the backbone. How do we level the playing field?
This is a big problem, not just in Kenya, but the rest of Africa. One of the things that need to be done is to ensure that more agriculture extension officers are female, to make it easier for women farmers to access their services.
Secondly, women need to have better access to finance. Banks are very reluctant to lend money to farmers, especially women, because they are under the impression that they are bad debtors.
If women are to succeed as farmers, they need money to buy seeds and other inputs.
What are the advantages of farmers pooling together?
An association brings together many farmers, giving them the power to bargain for better prices in the market. If it’s just one farmer selling his produce to a middleman, then he gets much less than what the produce is worth.
At harvest time, the prices are usually at their worst because of glut in the market. That is when associations help most.
How do we get Generation Y to embrace farming?
If young people go to agricultural colleges and acquire basic skills, not necessarily a degree, they will make a lot of money from agri-business.
Some crops bring better returns than others. Young people need to know this so that they do not fail when they try farming to avoid discouragement. Beekeeping can also be a great venture for young people.
How can we make Kenya food secure when agricultural land is being taken up, by among other things, real estate?
That is where sustainable intensification comes in. Sustainable intensification means that you make the most of the little available land.
Greenhouses, for example, occupy very little space, but they bring in very good yields. It all starts from planting the right hybrid seeds, which have been engineered to produce more yields than traditional seeds and then using the right fertiliser.
Food security in Africa is pegged on high crop yields. Normally, farmers harvest less than a tonne of maize per hectare. Using new hybrid seeds, they can harvest as much as six to eight tonnes a hectare.
Farmers in Iowa in America reap up to 11 tonnes per hectare. The good news is that these seeds are very cheap. They are produced by the government and distributed by seed companies.
The other thing that people forget is that agriculture is a diverse industry and that not everyone needs to literally get their hands dirty to be relevant in the sector.
We need marketers as well as people to process food harvested from the farms. We need people in the entire value chain and you can fit somewhere.
Basically, the more food we harvest, the more we have to sell, and we can process the surplus into different forms, hence developing the industry. This is the beauty of sustainable intensification. Nothing goes to waste.
So how can poor farmers embrace sustainable intensification?
Farmers need to have a credit system, and often, this is the responsibility of associations. These institutions provide farmers with seeds and fertiliser on loan and lend them money to install water pumps and other farming implements. The farmers can then pay back once they harvest their crops.
Other than capital, what are some of the other challenges facing Kenyan farmers?
Pests and diseases are a perennial problem in Kenya. This is why organisations like Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) have developed maize seeds that are immune to striga, a very harmful weed that stunts the growth of cereals and eventually kills them.
The striga-resistant seeds are now available in Kenya, which is an important development. Another innovation credited to AATF is drought-resistant maize seeds, which have also been released in Kenya recently.
Why is there so much resistance to genetic modification (GM), not just in Kenya but in Africa?
Just for clarity, the striga-resistant and the drought-resistant maize seeds are not genetically modified. However, it is evident that climate change will trigger more frequent and severe droughts, which will make it necessary to use GM to keep yields up.
What Africa needs is to change its perception towards GM and to start investing in it. There is no scientific evidence to show that genetically modified foods are harmful to the body.
Another argument is that the crops are being produced by big foreign companies, which is not true. Some African countries have already started dabbling in GM. Uganda, for example, has five to six different GM crops being developed and most of the work is funded by government.
What are some of the biggest challenges towards adoption of GM in Kenya?
Well, I think there has been a lot of bad publicity about GMOs. The public and the government need to be better informed about the reality of the technology and how it can boost food security.
There is a misconception that GMOs cause all sorts of diseases but there is no evidence to support any of these claims. America is fed almost exclusively on GMOs yet there has been no record of illness or death as a result.
People do not like GMOs because they think they are not natural, but they forget that a lot of food we eat is not organic. We need to embrace technology in agriculture the same way we have embraced technology in medicine.
What does Africa’s scorecard look like when it comes to research and development in agriculture?
Africa definitely needs to invest more in research. There is a lot of money coming in for agricultural research from foreign donors, and this needs to be utilised properly.
However, it is very important that Kenya does not rely on aid. It needs to put its own money into research, especially in training young people to do research. It is not enough for the youth to go to university for just a bachelor’s degree. More young people need to study up to doctorate level to participate in research.