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Farming need not be a trap of sweat without earnings

Monday March 21 2016

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My trip to Makueni last week was an eye-opener. 

As I drove along the winding road around the hills down into Wote, one thing bothered me.

The widespread subsistence farming, particularly the withered maize crops that welcome you into this land of honey, was unsettling. 

Whichever way you look at this glaring problem, we have not done enough to help our rural communities support their families.

“Shall we ever develop sustainable farming systems?” I kept on asking myself, and if we ever do, who will be responsible for it?

Even without coming face to face with the residents of this community, an eerie feeling of poverty and desolation hangs around the whole place. 

Who should be fighting poverty when the county government is in a state of paralysis?

Should our focus be on poverty reduction or increasing production to ensure food security? Where are our priorities and how do we decide on them?

The early policy objectives of our founding father, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, were to fight poverty, ignorance and disease. Over half a century later, the same three concerns continue to haunt us.

It looks as though we never dealt with them. In spite of many of us going to school, we seem to be patently ignorant in the 21st century. Here is why I think this is so.

Last week, I travelled to Nakuru County, to Bahati Constituency in particular. I was visiting a young successful farmer whom I’ll call John.

He came to Kenya exactly seven years ago as a volunteer and fell in love with not just the country but also one of our daughters. 

After his voluntary service, and with start-up capital of Sh500,000, he leased land in Solai and started a small dairy farm. 

Within three years, he was producing 1,000 litres of milk per day, earning him between 1.2 and 1.8 million shillings a month or about Sh14 million a year, approximately. 

This translates to about Sh7 million per hectare per year, which he felt was not satisfactory since the flower farm neighbouring him made about $250,000, or Sh25 million per hectare annually.

John decided to use his savings to buy 10 acres. He abandoned dairy farming due to its fragility and started intensive farming, using the latest technologies and seed varieties. 

While still at the pilot stage deciding which crop he should concentrate on, he makes between $100,000 and $150,000 per hectare per year.  He predicts that pretty soon he should comfortably make between $250,000 and $400,000 per hectare per year. 

He has put all his energies into farming and reads widely to understand market dynamics. He notes that good quality onions, for instance, would fetch him good returns in any of the global chains, yet, curiously, Kenya imports first-grade onions from Ethiopia. 

On my way back from Bahati, I noted that many subsistence farmers especially around Gilgil, Kikopey and Kinangop were actually growing onions, but they do not meet export standards. 

Instead, farmers bask in the sun all day to sell one 15kg bag that cannot support a family.

John’s onions in the pilot stage,  with new
John’s onions in the pilot stage, with new varieties with a higher yield estimated at 80 tons per hectare. The plastic white sheet helps to evenly distribute nutrients, in order to achieve the required standard size. PHOTO | BITANGE NDEMO

Along the Nyahururu road while coming from Bahati, I stopped a couple of times to ask the residents if they had access to at least one hectare of land, what they did with it and how much they made from the hectare each year. 

To my surprise, many of those who responded to my random exercise said they had between two and 10 hectares, and that they kept cows and grew maize while also running a kiosk along the highway. 

I averaged what they earned from all these multiple enterprises to be between Sh100,000 and Sh500,000, way below what John and his flower-growing neighbours make. 

Why are we not able to think like John, or at least act like him?

The first reason might be “because we do not ask a question like ‘what should I do to get the greatest output from my farm?’” 

However, academics would tell you that immigrants everywhere have greater potential when it comes to seeing opportunities, including those that local people cannot see. 

The Austrian American economist Bert Hoselitz, explains that the supply of entrepreneurship is governed by cultural factors, and that culturally, minority groups are the spark plugs of entrepreneurial and economic development in many countries.  

Entrepreneurs have emerged from a particular socio-economic class, he argues.

He emphasized the role of culturally marginalised groups like Jews and the Greeks in medieval Europe, the Chinese in South Africa and the Indians in East Africa in promoting economic development.

Academic explanations aside, we have our own cultural problems that we must confront in order to begin to change our status. As Africans, we have never quite dealt with the tension between acquired religions such as Christianity and Islam, and traditional African beliefs.

In some communities, too much success breeds envy, leading some people to want to be poor to conform to traditionally acceptable standards. 

A friend of mine who has just returned from Zimbabwe tells me the country is facing starvation this year. This country used to be the breadbasket of Southern Africa. 

Land that used to produce enough for local consumption and export lies fallow in the hands of our African brothers. 

In the 1970s, farmers in Trans Nzoia and many other parts of Kenya produced forty 90kg bags of maize per an acre, but data from the Tegemeo Institute shows a remarkable decline.

Some maize-growing areas only harvest a paltry five 90kg bags per acre, yet the population has more than quadrupled.

We are simply in dire need of help. Coffee, tea and other cash crops are experiencing similar patterns, largely because our focus is so divided that we never get to learn of new varieties in the market place or what the customer wants. 

Our pride is so misplaced that we adore land while remaining ignorant of what it can potentially do to our livelihood. Knowledge is crucial if we are to develop a sustainable farming system, but cultural transformation is the fuel. 

Like the Japanese, we must introduce our own version of Kaizen (Continuous Improvement), which refers to a situation where employees in an organization, especially in manufacturing, work together to achieve regular, incremental improvements.

Similarly, farming communities must work closely together to learn new farming techniques and varieties that would improve productivity. An old cliché, “What gets measured gets done,” perhaps sums up the many questions in this article. 

If we create measurements, we can easily begin to know where we are not doing well relative to our potential. 

Either through the ubiquitous mobile handset, or through formal entrepreneurial evangelism, we must let farmers know that they can do better if they seek knowledge to guide them.

Policymakers would also help if they created a new kind of extension officer who is frequently updated with market dynamics and new methods of production.   

Permanently talking about Africa’s potential without exploiting the opportunities that exist, especially in the Middle East and the rest of Africa, is futile.

Cultural transformation, research tells us, begins with the personal transformation of the leaders, then the followers, before a general change becomes apparent. It won’t happen while leaders take advantage of ignorance to get votes.

Influencing change through the sustained development of local content especially in film and animation can have significant impact. Mbugua, the cartoon serial entrepreneur par excellence, exposes our stereotypes but more importantly, he gets us talking about ourselves.

Oprah Winfrey once said, “I don’t have any limitations on what I think I could do or be.”

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.