Link farmers to markets for a better return on their investments

Women tend passion fruit farm in Uasin Gishu County. The African Development Bank (AfDB) Group has approved an equity investment of €19.2 million (about Sh3.4 billion) for women entrepreneurs in Kenya’s agricultural value chain.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Every time you buy groceries from the supermarket or the mama mboga in your estate, your money goes not to the farmer who grew the crops, but to brokers who know nothing about farming but everything about markets. Why has this become the norm, and how do we right the scales?

The National Mango Conference, held in May this year, themed ‘Winning markets for Kenyan mangoes’, shed a spotlight on this issue.

It highlighted conversations around production, market access and produce losses among Kenya’s horticulture smallholder farmers.

During the conference, discussions on the plight of mango farmers in Kenya took centre stage, with the majority of the speakers at the conference emphasising the need for county and the national governments to ensure that farmers have access to reliable markets.

This clarion call comes in the aftermath of an abundant mango season that ended in March this year.

During the season, Kenyan consumers enjoyed access to affordable mangoes for fruit, puddings and juices but the joy that comes with abundance was not experienced by many mango farmers across the country. Take Teresa, for example, a mango farmer from Makueni.

 She was expecting to make a huge profit from her mango farm but she is now counting losses, having sold much of her farm produce at a very low price due to access-to-market challenges and pest infestation.

“The losses I have incurred are huge, and this is affecting my ability to reinvest in my mango farming business, meet my family needs and repay a loan that helped me invest in the first place,” she recounts.

The situation is not unique to Teresa, as this is the state of affairs for many mango and other horticultural produce farmers across Kenya.

The agriculture sector, which includes horticulture, plays a pivotal role in the Kenyan economy, accounting for 34 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Although the numbers are declining slightly, the sector employs about 6.5 million people (most of whom are women) and is the principal source of income for most Kenyans, either directly or indirectly.

The sector also plays a fundamental role in the country’s food and nutrition security, balance of trade, foreign exchange, job creation and income generation, and is a source of raw materials for industrial manufacturing.

Agricultural value chains

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (2019), more than 70 per cent of agricultural production in the country comes from small-scale farms, making smallholder farmers key players in the agricultural value chains.

However, smallholder farmers in Kenya face several challenges, including accessibility of markets due to the dominance of middlemen and brokers who take advantage of their vulnerability.

These intermediaries often offer low prices for produce, leaving farmers with little or no profit. They also dictate the quality and quantity of produce, leading to food losses and wastage. This has left many smallholder farmers struggling to make ends meet, with some even abandoning their farms for other economic activities.

In one part of the country, produce is rotting in farms with no buyers while in another part, people are dying of hunger.

Despite efforts by government agencies, development partners and the private sector, Kenya continues to register high agricultural produce losses and waste, severely derailing the country’s efforts to feed its growing population, secure stable incomes for those working in agriculture, and boost its economic growth.

Addressing farmers’ ability to access markets would not only reduce Kenya’s runaway agricultural losses and waste, it would also position agriculture as a worthwhile pursuit for people like Theresa.

Facilitating market linkages for farmers requires a holistic view of the challenges and concerted efforts from diverse stakeholders to address them.

At the farm level, there is a need to scale interventions that improve access to market information and strengthen farmers’ engagements with markets.

Better prices

This can be achieved by working with farmers’ cooperatives and associations, further enabling farmers to collectively access markets and negotiate for better prices.

Additionally, farmers should be facilitated with knowledge on appropriate post-harvest produce handling practices , value addition and access to technologies such as cold storage, alongside an investment in good rural roads infrastructure to fully exploit available markets.

All this must be done alongside efforts to improve productivity and protect the environment. We should aim for a whole-system approach to achieve a vibrant and profitable agricultural sector in Kenya.

We must make it worthwhile for Theresa to keep farming. Otherwise there will be nobody left to feed us.

Catherine and Bruce are African Food Fellows