The Future of Agtech in Kenya

New developments in agtech can help small-scale farmers adapt to climate change and improve their livelihoods.

Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “as a general rule, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information.” Though he spoke these words almost a century ago, their echo could be undoubtedly felt at the #WhatsNext AgTech session that was organized by Nest Nairobi and held at Strathmore University’s business school.  

The #WhatsNext AgTech session, moderated by Zeynab Wandati, aimed at identifying the areas stakeholders felt had posed the greatest challenge to the agricultural sector in 2015 and how those problems could not only be solved in 2016, but used to transform and revolutionize the agricultural space.

Food to market – a difficult road

“Kenya is not food insecure. Kenya is logistic insecure”. These are words attributed to Grant Brooke, the CEO of Twiga Foods. Statistics show that more than 30% of food produced in Kenya does not make it to the market. As recently as last week, farmers in Subukia were leaving their tomatoes to rot by the roadside due to lack of market to sell them to (despite the prices of tomatoes in the major towns of Kenya being significantly high). Such wastage plays a significant role in entrenching food scarcity and constitutes a notable challenge for farmers.

The most obvious solution to this problem would be to improve the infrastructure (primarily roads) which would enable affordable collection of farmer produce. The building of infrastructure, however, is pegged on government plans and forecasts which may be beyond the control of agripreneurs.

Can we make co-operatives work for everyone?

So what can agripreneurs do themselves to increase the percentage of product that is sold? Co-operatives and farmer groups were the next obvious answers. In such a cluster, farmers can collect enough produce to warrant the huge transport cost a buyer of their product may be forced to incur.

“What is the benefit of having co-operatives in the agricultural value chain?” Most agripreneurs at the session were faced with this question and various people said they had encountered challenges while trying to work with co-operatives.

Charles Odida, a farmer explained to the audience how it is next to impossible for smallholder sugarcane farmers to sell their produce directly to sugar factories and they usually have to sell their produce to them via co-operatives. The sugar companies, in turn, make payment to the co-operatives who deduct a commission and disperse the remaining funds to the farmers. Some farmers feel that co-operatives simply selling their product to factories is not enough to account for how much they charge for this service, and would like to see co-operatives add more value. 

However, Stefano Carcoforo from iProcure felt that co-operatives still hold a very important role in the agricultural value chain and more effort should be made to consider how to reform co-operatives and solve some of the problems they face. With such vast networks of of people (the largest co-operative in Kenya has more than 70,000 farmers) co-operatives are undoubtedly a very influential force in agriculture. It is vital to work with them to create a powerful foundation so that the agriculture sector can flourish.

Product traceability: time for a new approach

Farmers were also identified as having a key role if we are to succeed  transforming the agricultural sector. Chris Kolenberg from Kenya Biologics noted that more than 90% of the food consumed locally would not pass the stringent EU chemical tests. Why do  some farmers plant produce for the export market separately from that for the local market? Furthermore, why do they use internationally accepted chemicals for export produce but use internationally banned chemicals for local market produce?

Firstly, it was noted that there is a  lack of stringent laws and policies about chemicals, unlike in the EU. In addition to this, there is a proliferation of ‘get rich quick’ schemes, where farmers are told that certain chemicals will ripen produce faster and make more profits. The combination of a lack of top-down pressure and a wealth of false information creates arguably the largest challenge facing agriculture, the traceability and safety of food products.

Perhaps with a new approach we can overcome this. If we can create regulations and – at the same time – improve the knowledge of farmers we can ensure that the correct fertilizers are used, and that consumers receive only high quality produce.

AgTech can start an information revolution

Looking at all the issues that were raised at the #WhatsNext AgTech forum, one issue stood true and Marion Moon from Wanda Organic summed it up perfectly, “farmers do not have enough information to understand not only the value of soil, but the value of agriculture in general.” If you think about it, access to good information is a huge first step in solving most problems facing the agricultural sector.

With access to good information, farmers would be able to not only know what commodities were desirable locally and internationally, they would be able to create and maintain relationships with market players improving their chances of selling all their produce.

With access to a good information platform, market players, co-operatives and farmer groups would be able to train farmers on everything that is important if we are to have a breakthrough in agriculture. From which chemicals can be used to finance options and market price information: you really can never have too much information when it comes to agriculture.

John Naisbitt says it best, “the new source of power is not money in the hands of the few but information in the hands of many.”

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Posted 5 February 2016 | Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,