As he leads a long haul truck full of green bananas inside the congested Wakulima Market in Nakuru town, one would mistake James Kahore to be the farmer behind the produce.
Kahore is one of the brokers at the busy food market and once the truck arrives at its destination, he sets the price of the produce, supervises the offloading and distribution of the fruits to the traders.
The broker would later collect the cash and pay the supplier after taking his cut. At the market, Kahore operates with dozens of other brokers.
“Our major role is to connect farmers to such bulk buyers and then the buyers to retail traders at markets. It is us who keep the value chain going,” says Kahore.
According to him, the brokers have established good ties with farmers and traders thus helping farm produce reach the market faster. This prevents post-harvest losses.
“Each broker has specialised on different farm produce. Some of us buy the produce and sell to the traders or we act as the linkage and earn some commission out of it,” says Kahore.
But even as Kahore defends the role of brokers at food markets, the job is among the most vilified, with many farmers complaining that they are exploited.
This has made some politicians promise farmers that they will eliminate the brokers from the supply chain if they get elected in August polls to help farmers earn more.
“If this happens, there will be a huge gap and a crisis?” says Festus Munene, a broker who deals in animal feed ingredients.
Munene is the go-between suppliers of animal feed ingredients from Uganda and Tanzania and local farmers and traders.
"My work is to ensure there is a steady supply of animal feed ingredients from neighbouring countries. This helps farmers to cut the cost of production as they formulate their own feeds. If you remove me, then farmers would have no alternative.”
Munene notes he negotiates for best prices. For instance, a 50kg bag of maize bran goes in Uganda at Sh900 and sells in Kenya from Sh1,000 to Sh1,200 depending on demand.
Munene, who operates in Nakuru, says that few farmers can source for the ingredients on their own. Besides, it takes time to establish trustworthy sources.
Mercy Akinyi, a broker at Njoro market who specialises in fish trade, says apart from getting her commission, she helps her clients get good produce.
"When we bring fresh fish from Lake Victoria and sell it to fishmongers, they are happy. We help them concentrate on their core trade as they have a reliable supplier. You can imagine if they go chasing after fish in Kisumu, they will not do their core trade," says Akinyi.
For Patricia Njoki, a tomato broker in Naivasha, she normally visits farms, selects the best tomatoes and brings them to the market.
“The fact that I do this ensures that only quality ends up at the market.”
She notes that brokers help farmers sell their produce faster, especially those in areas that are not easily accessible.
"Tomato is a highly perishable product and because of our network, we help farmers secure the market thus avoiding wastage."
It is the same case with Peterson Kiarie, who deals with onions at Kikopey trading centre along the Nakuru-Nairobi highway.
He says brokers play an important role as most retail traders don’t bulk-buy. "I travel to Tanzania to buy onions, what an ordinary trader cannot do. I source directly from the market in Tanzania and earn some profit. This way, traders save time and other logistical costs," said Kiarie.
Maxine Njoki, who trades in avocado, notes that through her, farmers access international markets.
“I agree with farmers on how best we can buy their products and the quality needed. The market thus ends up with quality produce," says Njoki.
"Sometimes traders and government officials think we are exploitative but they forget that this is business. We connect farmers with seed merchants for quality seedlings, we then connect them to the market. It's not all about profits. We depend on the farmers and we have to ensure they produce the best and they survive for our continuity.”
While some farmers hail the traders believing they are a necessary evil, others believe they are exploitative.
“I cannot wait to sell in the markets. I sell directly to the broker at a negotiated price to enable me to repay my debts at the agrovet shop. A broker helps arrange the logistics of getting farm produce to the buyer and some brokers reputation is key as they have spent years building that relationship,” says Nicodemus Wambugu, a tomato farmer in Rumuruti
Teresia Cheptoo, an avocado farmer in Subukia, says she sells her produce to brokers to avoid paying the many taxes and fees at the Nakuru Wakulima Market. “There are many charges one pays before accessing Wakulima market. If you don’t have bulk produce, you will go at a loss. I would rather sell my avocados to a middleman,” says Cheptoo.
Besides the county taxes, a farmer taking produce to the market must bear transportation charges and sometimes storage costs to avoid post-harvest losses. Most farmers say they cannot afford all that.
But as brokers defend their trade, they are worried that digital technology is eating into their business as some tech-savvy traders and farmers engage directly.
"Certainly, the use of digital technology is a worry to us. It is helping smart farmers shop for better prices from businesses like supermarkets, hotels and schools," says Dominic Kambo, a broker at Ponda Mali in Nakuru West.
Prof George Owuor, an agricultural economist based at Egerton University, observes that brokers are a “necessary evil”.
“In any business, there is a value chain and all participants are needed to facilitate smooth movement of goods and products.”
According to Prof Owuor, brokers are important members of the value chain thus they are supposed to be creating value for farmers and traders. “The problem with some brokers is that they exploit farmers using pricing by hiding how much they are selling to traders or consumers. The farmers should know how much the brokers are making from their produce. The profit margins should not be more than 10 per cent.”
He notes that to curb exploitation, market price information should be shared through the agricultural system by the government to enable farmers know the correct price before they sell to brokers their produce.