[Interview] Jane Ngige, CEO, Kenya Horticultural Council
Jane Ngige is synonymous with tenacity, tact and celestial zeal. For the more than ten years she was the CEO of Kenya Flower Council, she is credited with having introduced transformative reforms, changing negative industry perceptions while driving it to unprecedented records.
Now at the helm of the Kenya Horticultural Council, KHC, she is tasked with an even more demanding task of elevating the glory of the industry to new highs. But Mrs. Ngige sees this as another stab at doing what she loves; putting systems and processes in order.
She spoke to Africa Business Communities about what her new job means to her, the plans she has for the industry, the Council’s space in shaping the sector and her vision to catapult Kenya to the league of global horticulture export giants while making local fresh produce markets safe and competitive.
Recent reports point to a rosy horticulture industry that has recorded marked growth in production and sales. What would you attribute that growth to?
We are in a very interesting situation whereby yes indeed it does look like the industry is doing well if you look at the statistics. In 2017 for example we hit the Sh130 billion mark in exports with the flowers of course doing quite well. This is due to a couple of reasons.
We had good weather in the year necessary for horticulture to flourish. Then in February we had a windfall because of heightened demand for flowers occasioned by political unrest in Ethiopia. Orders were diverted to Kenya.
Unfortunately as a country we were not prepared for this and we ended up getting overwhelmed by the volumes. That having been said it was overly a good year for the industry despite being an election year.
You are credited with having turned around the floriculture industry in the over ten years that you were at the helm of the Kenya Flower Council. What is your strategy for the broader horticulture industry?
KHC was mooted to address the challenges of market access pegged on compliance. Stakeholders agreed that what the industry needed was a one approach to address issues of market access, high level lobbying and to promote the industry.
Unlike flowers, the key issue with fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices is food safety. If the exports can effectively adopt the responsibility of ensuring food safety across the value chain, the results of that will percolate to the domestic level. Figure this, we only export 4 to 7 per cent from our horticultural production in Kenya.
The rest goes to domestic market. That paltry export percentage is worth Sh130 billion. The value of what we produce is approximately Sh400billion. About 40 per cent of what we produce goes to waste due to post harvest handling.
My vision is to cascade the good practices that have been catalyzed by export market requirements into local markets to achieve the expectations of government’s food security pillar of enough, accessible, affordable and nutritious food.
We are already working on a project with Nairobi County targeting one open air market to initiate these practices. Ultimately our idea is to create model markets with these parameters, supported by government, that can be emulated by other markets.
That would be enough to tame all the losses and shore up domestic contribution to the industry. So my hope is to see an organized fresh produce distribution system.
What are the greatest threats to the horticulture industry in Kenya and what are the players doing about them?
Since 2013 we have had a challenge with market access for our beans and peas in the EU with our official control systems being found wanting. One of the suggestions that was put forward by the EU authorities was that we needed to put in place a traceability system in order to maintain market confidence.
The restrictions are becoming more stringent. We are now facing a new requirement in terms of Fall Armyworm and False Codling Moth.
In the face of these challenges what has the industry done? It has, together with HCD, the main regulator come up with a systems approach to stem these interceptions both locally and internationally through the Horticulture Traceability system courtesy of USAID KAVES project.
We also reviewed an industry standard, the KS1758 to establish part I for flowers and ornamentals and part II for fruits and vegetables.
Now with these two standards and the traceability system in place, we have a very good system that will allow us to track back any problems anywhere in the value chain from seed, consolidating and cargo handling, and then intervene where necessary.
What we must do is ensure that there is full implementation of the traceability system and the standards, because the system allows us to implement the standard.
Some of our trade protocols have been quite prohibitive for doing business especially in emerging markets like China where our exporters pay taxes of between 4 and 12 per cent. The government needs to fast track trade protocols.
Logistics is another nightmare. It is not just the airport. We have recently had congestion at the port which has seen delays in export of avocadoes.
This is predominantly a small scale commodity that enjoys year- round good market.
Kenyans in that business have responded to government’s call to grow for export and then they have to struggle with facilitation. It is damaging to business and industry.
What are the recent trends in interceptions?
False Codling Moth has been a great threat to capsicums and chilli and we are happy that more growers are increasingly turning to greenhouses to tame this threat.
The industry is very alert to any threats old or emerging and we are counting a lot on the traceability system to assist us in identifying areas with unacceptable levels of notification pests and the mitigation measures to use
The beauty with Kenya is that these problems are not insurmountable. We will always find a way of overcoming them.
How is the experience being at the helm of a body that seeks to harmonize both floriculture and fresh produce sectors?
It is an exciting experience especially because the horticulture business is broad and continually makes its mark in growing the economy.
I am glad that systems and processes are working and I look forward to working closely with government and members in not just making the industry grow the economy but also contribute to the government’s big four agenda.
What are Kenya Horticultural Council members’ greatest concern at the moment?
Sustaining market access. We have worked hard to have access to these very sensitive markets. Members also want to see the industry growing and expanding. We have the capacity, we have the wherewithal and the markets are there.
To achieve these two, members need efficient business facilitatory service from government in terms of official control systems, promotion of exports and reducing the cost of doing business.
With the pivotal role that the horticulture industry plays in the country’s economy, is the government is doing enough for the industry?
We are very happy with what the regulator, that is HCD and government is doing to work with the industry instead of policing it but there are areas where this working relationship can be improved.
We feel that the regulators need to understand the industry much better so that they can give us better services in order to continue growing and expanding.
This is a very important economic sector in terms of foreign earnings and job creation so the country needs to look at how it will support the sector. It doesn’t require subsidies but serious marketing as it happens in other areas like tourism or tea.
HCD as the regulator must fully implement the horticulture traceability system and requirements for industry standards to guarantee level playing field for all exporters but also to maintain market confidence that has been hard earned.
Business facilitation must be emphasized. For example KEPHIS must be able to provide 24 hours service. Again we should embrace systems that are not focused on end of the process inspections.
We should institutionalize the value chain inspections so that these bodies like KEPHIS do more inspections on the farms, at the consolidation points and at cargo handling areas so that by the time the product is being inspected at the end point the exporter is assured that the consignment is good to go.
We would like to see KEPHIS devolve services so that they get closer to the people.
The government should also support the sector by giving it the Special economic zones status particularly flowers where a huge volume is grown for exports. Flower farms are spread across the country so the question is how to put them in one zone that can ensure they are managed efficiently for purposes of tax regime.
Our suggestion has been to have virtual economic zones where KFC can put all its members within that virtual space and provide an enabling tax regime and business facilitation in terms of efficient delivery of services like licensing.
What legacy are you looking to shape as the woman at the helm of one of the most critical sub sectors in the country?
I am very focused on cascading the high international standards we have embraced for our fresh produce to local and regional markets so that we also encourage producers targeting these markets to fully comply. We are working with county governments to sensitize County Executives in charge of Agriculture.
But we are happy with the awareness that has been created in ensuring that producers provide enough quantity of food, the right quality in terms of nutrition, uphold safety and ensure that food is accessible. This is our contribution to food security in this country and getting the country to diversify from traditional staple foods.
Once the KHC is properly established, we are looking forward to invite other likeminded associations so that it is not just limited to exporters because there is the desire to be inclusive if we are to see local market flourish.