Agricultural Investment in Eastern Kenya

Published on 1st August 2006

Authors:          James Shikwati and Stellah Amuhaya
Pages:             149
Cost:               Kshs 500 (US$10)

In spite of challenges that farmers in Eastern province face, they exhibit a strong business robustness that if strengthened, will not only turn Eastern province into a prosperous agricultural prospective region but also Kenya and Africa in general. This is the message that James Shikwati and Stella Amuhaya are passing in their book Agricultural Investment in Eastern Kenya.

The book is a product of Inter Region Economic Network’s (IREN) agriculture research on Commercial Farming for Low Resource Farmers conducted in Makueni, Kitui and Machakos districts of Eastern province which has been experiencing food shortages every three years on average since 1840.The districts are classified as Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs), falling under low to medium potential agricultural area. The three districts were purposely selected for the study because they are part of the food insecure regions in the ASALs of Kenya.

The study which mainly focused on small-scale farmers since they are the most vulnerable groups, took three months (from mid-February 2005-mid-May 2005). A sample size of 600 farmers was targeted in the ratio of 202, 221, 137 in Makueni, Machakos and Kitui respectively. However 212, 274 and 158 farmers in Makueni, Machakos and Kitui respectively were successfully interviewed. The research aimed at assessing production, consumption and marketing strategies of low resource farmers; exploring constraints affecting farmers; identifying socio-cultural and economic variables that affect farming; recommending strategies for commercial approach to smallholder agriculture; facilitating networks of low resource farmers and relevant stakeholders; publishing and disseminating findings to the stakeholders through workshops and seminars.

The book is based on both primary and secondary data. The main source of data was 644 farmers drawn from the three districts interviewed alongside other key actors: Ministry of Agriculture, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Seed Stockists, NGOs, CBOs and Micro Finance Institutions. Data was captured using Semi-structured questionnaires and Focus Group Discussions. The Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) Computer Package (Version 10) was the main tool used to analyze data.

The book discusses the importance of commercial farming amongst the low resource farmers in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) in Eastern Province. It borrows a leaf from Mtei (2003) who defines commercial Agriculture as the type of farming whose products are meant for the market by the farmer. The farmer here is an entrepreneur who is constantly making his/her own economic decisions and assessment, operating the farm as a business unit assessing results of the application and utilization of the assets at his/her disposal, be they land, implements, labor, livestock or capital. He/she makes decisions depending on market opportunities. In the book the terms “small scale farmer”, “subsistence farmer” and “low resource farmer” are used interchangeably to mean a person who not only grows crops on about 2.1 Ha of land but also hardly realizes surplus due to agro-ecological and socio-economic constraints.

The authors highlight the situation in Africa where the number of chronically undernourished people continues to rise to 194 million. Africa’s share of global agricultural imports in 1998 was 4.6 percent while its share of developing country imports was 16 percent. In 2003 agricultural imports accounted for about 15 percent of the imports. The agriculture sector’s underperformance was evidenced by the falling food production and subsequent sharp rise in food imports from 8million tonnes in 1980 to nearly 12 million tonnes in 1984.

Kenya’s predominantly agrarian economy is carried out by low resource farmers who account for 75 percent of total agricultural output. Agriculture accounts for approximately one-third of GDP, 70 percent of export earnings and employs more than two-thirds of the labor force. It has been however declining due to unfavorable policies, weather variability, marketing constraints, costly inputs and static technologies. The study aimed at establishing an entry point from which farmers could be educated to think and act commercially.

The book illustrates the huge potential of the region: Kshs. 2.5 billion in seed provision and livestock output of Kshs. 105 billion. Developed countries used to experience famine but worked hard to overcome it, so we can also do it.

The strategy for data collection was well thought out. It was excellent as it was an all-inclusive processes focusing on all stakeholders in the sector. This provided intensive and extensive views and suggestions in identifying farmers’ challenges and their solutions. The only sector that was overlooked yet it plays a direct or indirect role in agriculture is forestry. Currently people all over the world are growing trees as a cash crop. This is being done in Kenya. The improved eucalyptus from South Africa is being planted as a cash crop. Trees also play a role in agriculture, acting as windbreaks, preventing soil erosion, modifying the climate among others.

Another good attribute was that Focus Group Discussions were structured and conducted in a way that researchers not only solicited information but also educated farmers. The study could also have captured the perceptions and experiences of farmers with the NGOs/CBOs. The Organizations stated to have done some things for the farmers, but may be the farmers could be having different views and experiences as some may just be out to use farmers, “Preying on poor farmers” if I may borrow the term from Mr. Shikwati, Director IREN.

Almost all the stakeholders concur with farmers in regard to challenges faced by the latter: unreliable rainfall, inadequate finance for purchasing farm inputs, high costly inputs, infertile soils, small land sizes, poor farming skills, pests and diseases, labor shortage, poor storage, poverty levels, low education level, lack of farming education, and preference for certain crops that don’t even do well. The stakeholders cite the hurdles encountered when rendering service to farmers. Seed stockists face competition from indigenous and fake seeds, costly seeds due to high taxes, low supply of seeds from manufacturing companies and farmers’ lack of knowledge of seed varieties. Sixty percent of Agricultural Officers interviewed lack adequate means of transport to farm visits, have difficulty in dealing with illiterate farmers who want tangible handouts rather than information, and 22 percent decry the poor state of roads that hinder their work. Financial Institutions contend with loan defaults and delay in repayment.

Again all stakeholders suggest similar solutions towards the challenges that farmers face; irrigation (water provision), provision of education, access to loans, affordable farm inputs, crop diversification, government support, emphasis on drought resistant crops, use of certified seeds, enhanced extension services and linking farmers to markets. They also propose that farmers grow more indigenous crops as they are drought, pest and disease resistant; farmers  increase savings so as to access loans, form groups for easier access to loans and lobby for their interests. Horticultural farming, encouraging of cooperative movements, repair of rural access roads, establishing of industries for processing local produce, rural electrification, improvement of people’s health, encouraging self employment and ensuring individual land ownership are seen as ways of spurring farmer productivity.

More interesting, the farmers bring out other issues that show they have potential for commercial farming. They give a resounding No! to provision of relief food as a means of mitigating perennial hunger but recommend provision of water to enable them quit dependency. One of the coping strategies in times of crop failure is resorting to some businesses. The magnitude of their output and resilience in spite of little resources shows that if motivated, they can commercialize agriculture.

The authors’ presentation of a market projection is a good way of motivating investors/companies to invest in the region. They also give a projection in terms of sales by the farmer for different crops as this could motivate the farmers to think of commercializing their agriculture. Normally people invest more in enterprises that promise profit. The Moneymaker water pump advertisements attract many farmers because they show the money that the pump user would garner in a specified period. It is most likely that some farmers in Eastern Province may not be investing in the agricultural sector because they do not know that they can make profit. This may be the cause of laziness attributed to some farmers.

The authors provide very good recommendations which if implemented can change the region for the better. Apart from exploring successful lessons and practices gleaned from other parts of the world, the recommendations mostly revolve around the suggestions given by all the stakeholders hence implementation would not be a problem. This bottom up approach is the best. It has been successful in all parts of the world as opposed to the top down approach which creates “Sweat Equity.” The bottom up approach attracts stakeholder cooperation and participation because their views are included. 


Provision of water for irrigation besides affordable and quality seeds and other farm inputs, friendly loans, farm insurance and setting up of market information centers. Revitalizing of extension services, quality control on seeds, fertilizer and pesticides, enforcing liberalization, providing tax incentives, investing in roads and electricity, leasing idle land for farming to local residents, promoting of rural-based agro-processing industries, training seed stockists and farmers and encouraging integration of Indigenous Technical Knowledge in farming are tackled. There is emphasis on farmers’ trainings targeting the youth in order to ensure sustainability of commercial farming approaches. Businesses should be encouraged to invest in farming communities with a view of expanding their markets. Local artisans should fabricate tools needed for farming. The authors also recommend that farmers diversify crops and keep different types of livestock.

Formation of ‘farmers and multi-stakeholders’ linkages/networks that could focus on need based projects through commercial approaches is explored at length. Through the networks, farmers can agree to pool their resources (land for example) together and design the commercial use of it. Through this they can link up with relevant bodies like banks for loans; companies for seed provision, pesticides and ploughs; think tanks; NGOs; CBOs; University Students and Youth groups for strategic business and farming education.

The idea of market information centers has worked well elsewhere. In Bungoma, the Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange has been doing this successfully. The idea of amalgamating land may be tricky because of the difficulty in determining the type of crops to grow if the farmers involved have different preferences, difficult in sharing of profits, lack of trust among others. Letting investors use land and share out profits is also tricky because of the way in which the profits will be shared. The investor may want to exploit the farmers. In case of crop failure, conflicts could arise. However these are good ideas if proper legal structures are put in place.

Most of these recommendations are excellent and workable. The authors are trying to bring out the need for multisectoral, multiagency, multicultural and multidisciplinary approach towards solving problems. This has a multiplier effect, as the outputs will be more.

Other areas that could be explored

Farmers could be encouraged to harvest floodwater that can later be used for irrigation. They could be advised to embrace new technologies in agriculture such as drought, pest and disease resistant crops developed from biotechnology. An example is the eucalyptus species from South Africa that can grow in most ecological zones including the study area. It is disease, pest, and drought resistant and can be grown as a cash crop. AQUA-SOIL tm (a blend of nutrients and cross-linked co-polymers forming a super absorbent polymer specifically designed to store water and nutrients which are slowly released on demand) reduces evaporation and irrigation frequency by at least 50 percent and increases water and nutrient holding capacity of soil. The people of Eastern Province should be encouraged to plant trees as this will modify the climate and attract rainfall. They should consider rearing wildebeests for they are hardy and well adapted for the region. Their meat has been found to be good. Beekeeping would be good too.

I recommend this book to those who are brave enough to reprogramme their thinking, and visualize the long term with a view of making profit while improving the lot of the people at the bottom of the pyramid.

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