The Agricultural Society of Kenya is a nonprofit organization trying to help Kenyan farmers succeed in a sustainable manner. The Society uses technological advances to empower locals to increase crop yields and prepare for a future of changing demographics and climates. Additionally, education about new practices as well as resource and time management helps small farmers.
According to the Society, agriculture is generally a local practice in Kenya, with 80 percent of stakeholders being local farmers. Focusing primarily on staple crops such as maize (corn), cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans, the organization is trying to educate locals about promising farming techniques as well as connecting them with international efforts to promote sustainable agricultural practices.
Food Tank spoke with Kevin Makhanu, a representative from the organization, about technological advancements, traditional agricultural practices, and the future of farming in Kenya.
Food Tank: What types of technology does your organization showcase and in what ways are they beneficial?
Kevin Makhanu: Our key theme this year is “Enhancing Technology in Agriculture and Industry for Food Security and National Growth.” We are going to host affordable trade fairs and exhibitions to ensure that both simple and sophisticated changes in technology reach farmers. From something as simple as advising farmers on crop rotation, diversification and proper crop management to ensuring that there are increases in output on small farm holdings, we help cushion against food price fluctuations, mitigate the effects of increasing climate variability, balance food demand, improve food availability for livestock, break insect- and pest-caused diseases and weed lifecycles, and improve national food security initiatives.
We also help transfer sophisticated technology for use in sustainable, concentrated agriculture that uses green house technology to make full use of the land in the face of ever-decreasing farm size due to land subdivision as Africa’s population grows. Modern-day irrigation systems like drip irrigation and lawn irrigation are made possible by bringing greenhouse construction companies on board.
There is an ever-increasing danger of arable land becoming arid or semi-arid because of ecological changes caused by the growth of a population that relies on forests for fuel. Our efforts have decreased that problem as more and more Kenyans use cooking stoves and digesters that produce methane for cooking. Less inexpensive and more eco-friendly ways to cook are adopted, like using refuse and animal waste to generate cooking gas for the entire family throughout the year. This is quite a difference from the traditional, energy wasting, “mekos” cooking stoves – a tradition that dates back as far as 1000 years. When the rural population uses new technologies for cooking, people don’t depend as much on the forest for fuel. In this way, we have been able to increase the hours women spend on agriculture rather than on looking for firewood. The ecosystem is protected as income and output per acre increases.
Also important is the use of underground water for irrigation. Companies are brought on board to provide low-cost drilling for water in neglected rural areas to help boost productivity for small-scale farmers.
And through us, seed companies get information to farmers about new, improved hybrid seeds that can survive ever-increasing temperatures and tackle ever-stubborn weeds like striga. In that way the farmers can get high yields. Some of these companies are Kenya Seed Company, Western Seed, and Pannar.
FT: How do your methods improve upon traditional methods?
KM: Traditionally, in Kenya, a farmer waits for the onset of the rainy season to do their planting. Hunger, poverty, HIV/AIDS and violence against women will not subside anytime soon. Why? Because climate alternations have made it difficult to know when to expect rain. Most small-holder farmers who do not have access to insurance; loans and extension services lose much of their capital investment by crops being destroyed by long dry spells or excessive rainfall. That is where we come in: with concentrated, sustainable agriculture and with the use of greenhouses. Then farmers can commit to agriculture full time without fear of weather changes. Output can increase tenfold.
Our key interest is the output, because the market has expanded so much that most of the crops are sold and there’s not enough to feed the growing population. Jobs are created for the youth, whose unemployment rate in Kenya stands at 40 percent.
FT: How successful have you been in implementing these technologies?
KM: We have achieved 60 percent of our goal—you can go deep inside rural areas and people will be talking about us having taught them. We are the front-runners in the transfer of agricultural technology. Most farmers look forward to the day when we visit their county with our informative information and technology. Output and profits are starting to increase and small farmers are starting to realize that agriculture can actually be a business. That way, we are enhancing food security and income, especially for women and youths who are usually relegated to very small farms (when) compared to men.
And by the way, by providing energy for cooking, you are saving an African woman. By working to improve small-scale farming, you are liberating an African woman. By increasing an African woman’s income, you are actually saving her from the idea that she must give birth to many children. You are reducing gender-based violence and in generally empowering her by giving her a voice to speak. We are at the heart of this, and we are going to find recognition soon enough.
FT: In what ways can interested persons help with your efforts?
KM: Any person can donate to our organization in kind or in cash. For example, if I found a partner who could set up a center in Bungoma County, where we have regular forums with women and youths, the most neglected of the Kenyan and African populations, we are going to reach more and influence more of them. Youths still think agriculture is not digital enough! Women are not included in the agriculture value chain and are therefore exploited by male counterparts, who act as middlemen. This center could act as a focal point for disseminating information to the entire nation and provide market linkages and even storage for products awaiting better prices. There is still a gap that needs to be filled. People with skills are there, but capital and facilitation is lacking.
FT: What do you see for the future of Kenyan agriculture?
KM: Kenya is one of the hardest-hit regions of the globe in terms of climate variations. The population growth rate is currently around 4.4 percent, which means by 2050 the population will double from 40 million to 80 million. The government is still struggling to feed the population. But two-thirds of Kenyan land has never been farmed because there is no rainfall. However, the world’s leading scientists have given us a way out. Large tracts of land can be converted to arable land through irrigation. The government is already working on the Galana-Kulalu project in Tana River County—a one-million-acre irrigation scheme that will dramatically change the landscape of Kenya’s food economy.
There is not going to be room for large-scale farming on arable lands due to population growth that has led to most of the land being taken over by home construction and other real estate projects. So most farming is going to rely on irrigation and greenhouses to create concentrated, sustainable farming that has proven to yield more and feed more as well as increase family income. There is also good news: the new Constitution offers women property ownership rights and we are not going to be surprised when the richest person in agriculture will be a woman in Kenya!
In a nutshell: within ten years, technology will define agriculture. Innovators and entrepreneurs will have room to flourish here.