Part IV: Benefits of Small Scale Farming in Kenya

Farmer in Kabaune village, Kenya, plowing his field with oxen. Photo: P. Casier / CGIAR via Flickr.

What are the constraints on small scale farmers in Kenya from being more productive? Here are some of the main blocks to enhanced productionGovernment neglect: The Kenyan government, like most governments throughout the world including the United States, supports the commercial, large farmers at the expense of the small scale farmers. For a current example, after the drought in 2017, in order to increase production of maize (corn), the government subsidized fertilizer so that a 50 kilogram (110 pounds) bag was sold for 1500/- ($15) instead of 3000/- ($30). The problem was that this subsidized fertilizer was only available to the commercial farmers. We as all small scale farmers had to pay 3000/- ($30) for a bag of fertilizer.

Government keeps the price of food low: The government is based in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. Nairobi with 10% of the country’s population generates 60% of its production. The urban population can easily put pressure on the government so the government tries to keep the price of food as low as possible. Again, for example, during the drought last year the price of maize flour, the Kenyan staple food, increased dramatically. Since it was also an election year, the government subsidized the cost of the maize flour. This subsidized maize flour occurred predominately in the supermarkets in the main cities and towns, but often did not reach the countryside. This was supposed to terminate shortly after the August election, but when the election was annulled and there needed to be a second election, the subsidy was continued until after the second election.

A Kenyan small scale farmer weeding her vegetables. 

Middlemen make the profits: Shortly after independence in 1963, Kenya had well functioning marketing systems and cooperative societies. During the Moi years most of these collapsed to be replaced by middlemen who would buy the harvest as cheaply as possible and sell it at as high a price as possible. This is the current system. For example, a few years ago the Peace Centre on Mt. Elgon grew 3,000 cabbages to sell to support the centre. The first middleman offered 3/- (3 US cents) for each head of cabbage. The centre turned this down and the second offer from a middleman was 7/- per cabbage. The centre agreed and received 21,000/- ($210) for their cabbages. At this time cabbages were being sold at our local Kipkarren River market for 35/- ($.35) per head. Consequently of the selling price the centre received 20% of the value and the middleman received 80%. This is common across most of the crops sold in Kenya. The small scale farmers do all the work, take all the risks, and receive the minimum for their efforts.

Corruption: Small scale farmers also pay through corruption. For example, many “fake” commercial farmers obtained exceedingly large quantities of the subsidized fertilizer discussed above. They had no intention of putting this on their non-existent farms. Rather they repackaged the 1500/- ($15) fertilizer in new bags and sold it to the small scale farmers at 3000/- ($30) per bag, thereby making a gross profit of 100%. The taxpayers including the small scale farmers are the ones who paid for this subsidy which was essentially stolen by the “fake” farmers. On a larger scale most of the cooperative societies and parastatal marketing organizations collapsed because of corruption. Coffee, pyrethrum, Kenya Cooperative Creameries (dairy), Kenya Farmers Cooperative, Kenya Meat Commission, numerous state-owned sugar factories, cashew and macadamia nuts, and so on, all collapsed to the great detriment to the small scale farmer. In these cases commercial farmers have also been badly affected.

Inefficiencies: Due to terrible, poorly designed and maintained roads, small scale farmers are sometimes unable to get their crops to market. In the rainy season – particularly this year when there has been excessive rainfall – roads become impassable. Milk and other perishable crops such as fruits and vegetables are particularly affected by these bad roads. Sometimes seeds or fertilizers are late in arriving and therefore are unavailable at the optimum time for planting/fertilizing. Farmers also frequently have to wait months and even a year or more to be paid for their crops – this is particularly a problem with sugar, maize, and coffee harvests. And when purchasing organizations collapse, the farmers suffer the loss.

A small scale farmer watering his cabbages by hand.

Lack of credit/crop insurance: Farming takes costly inputs that are only recovered when the harvest is paid for. Just the seeds and fertilizer for an acre of maize costs about 8,000/- ($80) and in our area it is almost six months before there is any return. Since short term credit is on the whole unavailable, if the farmer is short on cash, he/she skims on the inputs, thereby significantly lowering the yield. Moreover in some cases due to drought, hail, and/or disease the crop is a loss. There is no insurance to cover these types of losses so the farmer has to re-invest for other sources if he/she is able to do this – selling a calf or cow is one possibility.

Other issues: The tyranny of having to pay school fees in January, April, and August at the beginning of each school semester is a burden that forces farmers to sell crops at “throw-away prices,” as it is called here in Kenya. Another possible problem is medical expenses if someone in the family gets sick. In other words small scale farming is based on a precarious financial foundation.

To help cushion these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, farmers either secure other jobs or engage in day labor. When we plant, weed, or harvest an acre of maize needing up to ten people to do this in one day, we never have any difficulty in finding enough people willing to work for the day.

I have read that small scale farmers in Kenya produce 70% to 75% of the crop production in the country. If the above constraints were properly addressed, how much more production would come from these small scale farmers? Double the amount? Triple the amount? To state this in another way, only a fraction of the crop potential in Kenya is currently being used. Substantial increases are realistically possible which would feed the estimated increase of the Kenyan population in the next few decades.


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