King’ori is a quiet village in Arumeru District in Arusha, Tanzania.
It is in this region, East Africa’s diplomatic hub, that one finds Uremi Agricultural Marketing Co-operative Society (Amcos).
The Seeds of Gold team finds its members gathered at a social hall to discuss an important and urgent matter. A miller in Kenya had ordered thousands of bags of maize from the cooperative, thus members have to meet and agree on how to service the order.
While members of Uremi had hundreds of bags of maize preserved in one of their storage facilities, they needed to aggregate more to supply to the Kenyan miller through a trading company named Union Service Stores Ltd (USSL).
The firm buys maize from smallholder farmer groups, adds value to it by threshing, drying it further and checking the moisture content to ensure it is aflatoxin-free, before selling to various buyers, including major off-takers in Kenya.
“We are able to supply the maize because we are working together as smallholder farmers, which enables us to aggregate our produce and sell to major buyers,” says Rejeaeli John Sarakika, the chairman of the cooperative.
He notes that Uremi group consists of 220 smallholder farmers in King’ori. There are other such cooperatives in different parts of the country.
Martin Silayo, the production manager at USSL, says the company has a contract to supply one of the major milling companies in Kenya with 40,000 metric tonnes (40 million kilos) of maize every year. They aggregate the maize from Tanzanian smallholder farmer groups like Uremi.
“For a long time, we depended on traders to supply us with the grain. But since 2016, we learnt that dealing directly with smallholder farmer groups was more sustainable because we can intervene to improve the production where necessary, but above all, we can easily trace the source of our grain and monitor the quality right from the farm to the time it is delivered to our stores,” says Silayo, noting Kenyan millers are their major buyers.
Dealing with smallholder farmer groups has led to formation of hundreds of such outfits among farming communities across Tanzania, enabling the firm to easily source grains that it sells to Kenya.
Prices differ depending on which part of Tanzania the grain comes from and the season.
“But the cooperatives sell us from Tsh400 (Sh20) to Tsh600 (Sh30) per kilo. Then we add a 10 per cent mark-up after value addition,” Silayo says.
In Kenya, a kilo of maize currently averages Sh45, a price that pushes away millers.
Working in groups, thanks to training from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), has been a game-changer for thousands of small grain farmers in the country, according to Sarakika.
John Macharia, Agra’s country manager for Kenya, notes Tanzanian farmers are able to produce maize cheaply because government subsidies target the correct people and inputs are delivered at the right time.
“This is unlike in Kenya, where we have previously seen even the most affluent people in the society receiving fertiliser subsidies.”
He observes that another advantage Tanzania has over Kenya is that it has far more arable land for maize production.
“Whereas a Kenyan smallholder is able to afford just one acre, Tanzanian smallholders can afford more than 10 for maize production.”
Kenya’s annual maize production averages 40 million bags, against an annual demand of 52 million. The difference is thus imported from Tanzania, Uganda and elsewhere.
According to Macharia, the Kenyan method of producing maize, from subsidies to marketing, where the government is the main buyer, may not be sustainable, but it is necessary given the high cost of production.
“However, farmers, especially those from semi-arid regions, should consider other income-generating crops such as sunflower, whose returns are far much better than maize, and the cost of production far lower.”
The small farmers in Tanzania mainly deal in maize, beans, soybeans, sunflower and potatoes. Through the groups, they are linked to the market, and above all, can easily be trained on post-harvest handling technologies that enhance food safety, food quality and reduce losses.
“More than 30 per cent of the food produced for human consumption across the continent is lost to inadequate post-harvest management, lack of structured markets, inadequate storage in households and on farms as well as limited processing capacity,” says Edward Agaba, a programmes officer at Agra.
Maize is the most important crop across sub-Saharan Africa, consumed by 50 per cent of the population. But according to the International Institute for Agriculture, 28 per cent of maize has to be imported outside Africa to meet a shortfall in demand.
“We can easily change this tide by simply investing in smallholder farmers. We also need to overcome problems associated with informal grain trading and increase farmer incomes,” says Gerald Makau Masila, the executive director, Eastern Africa Grain Council (EAGC).
Sarakika observes that through the group, they are able to test their soils to understand the nutrient deficiencies, use the right farm inputs and employ good agronomic practices, which have seen many produce up to 20 bags per acre from five.
And then later collectively get better prices as they are able to enter into contracts with buyers. Through the group, members can borrow cheaply and buy farm inputs where necessary.
During the 2017 – 2018 season, the group was one of the five smallholder farmer groups that delivered 210,000 bags of maize to USSL, which is part of the 5,000 metric tonnes that were directly sold to the Kenyan market.
Save for the 2018 – 2019 season which was hit hard by tough climatic conditions, and the current season which has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, USSL has reached out to 25 smallholder farmer groups in Tanzania with a total membership of 5,500 with an aim of improving the supply to meet the target of 40,000 metric tonnes that the Kenyan miller needs.
“Our target in the next three seasons is to reach out to 90 smallholder farmer groups, and to be able to support them with necessary farm inputs, buy their produce on contractual basis as we strive to meet the demand in the region,” says Silayo.