[Column] Bob Koigi: The farm to folk business and getting our priorities right
Africa can be the world’s breadbasket, numerous studies have suggested, painting a picture of a continent well poised to emerge as a major supplier of food in a globe where population explosion coupled with food price spikes are taking a toll on farmland produce.
Yet with 50 per cent of the world's uncultivated arable land and a disproportionate amount of its resources, Africa still only contributes a dismal 2 per cent to global trade and barely trades between its own nations at all.
According to World Bank, Africa’s food systems, currently valued at US$313 billion a year from agriculture, could triple if governments and business leaders radically rethink their policies and support to agriculture, farmers, and agribusinesses, which together account for nearly 50 percent of Africa’s economic activity.
Kenya, one of the leading countries in Africa in matters agricultural advancement has equally been quoted as one of the countries that can feed itself, and even become a net exporter of food within a generation.
Yet behind the praise and optimism lies a sorry state of affairs evident in the thousands of small scale farmers still stuck in age old farming practices, overreliance on low yielding stress prone crop varieties even with dozens of superior crop varieties having been unveiled, lack of water harvesting mechanisms and food waste.
Our priorities from farm to fork seem warped which could be a major contributor to our snail paced commercialization of farming.
Take for example the fertilizer use. In especially Sub Saharan Africa, it is less than 10 percent of the world’s average with fertilizer access by especially smallholder farmers seems to be the biggest headache.
Without going into the detail, it is open secret how the once noble government fertilizer subsidy programme in Kenya has flopped, with intended beneficiaries delaying planting and eventually harvesting, which has ultimately had a huge impact on food security.
Liberalization of the fertilizer market as has been witnessed in other agricultural prosperous countries would save the day.
Then there is our poor water harnessing and harvesting techniques. Even as the rain pours, we are beset with warnings that as soon as the rain stops we shall return to drought and water shortages.
In most African cities, the tap water rationing is a common phenomenon. The problem, according to UNEP, is not the rainfall, but the water waste. If we harvested the rainfall, we would have plenty of water, and water harvesting isn’t even expensive. For example, Nairobi, alone, could support six to ten million people with 60 litres a day if rain water harvesting techniques were implemented, as more reports show that investing $20m in low cost water technologies globally, including drip irrigation and treadle pumps, would lift 100 million families out of extreme poverty.
And such has been a tried and tested phenomenon. Some arid areas across the continent are emerging as hubs of rain water harvesting with steadily more residents storing runoff and rainwater in underground reservoirs.
According to UNEP, this supplementary irrigation from water harvesting has increased crop yields by 20 per cent and even seen farmers diversifying into dairy farming, which was previously unheard of.
Small scale irrigation another way of harnessing water has been touted as key to a near tripling of sub-Saharan Africa's yields.
Experts believe that improving water management capabilities could now unleash smallholder farming and become a major driver of economic growth, poverty reduction and food security. But farmers need to be facilitated to delve into irrigation especially in the wake of changing weather patterns.
Value-added agriculture which has been greatly missing would also offer the possibility of changing the rural face of Africa by increasing returns to the farmers and – with the right investment – making Kenya the food factory of the world.
However the required infrastructure is currently lacking, calling for investment in the agricultural value chain by both the private and public sectors.
Poor storage facilities and substandard storage pesticides have been responsible for the rising cases of post-harvest losses with details emerging that African countries losses over 4 billion U.S. dollars annually in post-harvest maize grain losses due to lack of storage facilities.
The situation is further aggravated by the fact that 70 percent of the population lives more than two hours’ travel time from a market and with poor infrastructure most of the produce is has to be stored.
Yet simple post-harvest preservation techniques like using candle smoke to fight pests exist in the market but still remain underutilized.
But even with all the hue and cry a ray of hope still exists in the hundreds of vanguard agropreneurs now dubbed green millionaires who are buying land and planting high-yield crops, putting in water infrastructure to break dependency on rains, and even renting farms to cash in on returns often as high as a double payback in a single season.
Such ventures have now outdone the traditionally primed investment vehicles like real estate and stock market.
Multiple award winning Kenyan journalist Bob Koigi is the Chief Editor of East Africa at Africa Business Communities