A wrong seed variety that frustrated farmers was the inspiration that saw a vanguard agronomist quit his job at a seed company to start a seed revolution, which has metamorphosed into a company that is now turning smallholder farmers into exporters. The company has also brought to the country, the fastest maturing tomato variety in Africa at two months.
Simon Andys worked with a local seed company as a field agronomist during which time he interacted with farmers first hand, training them on good farm management practices and handling their complaints. But distribution of a wrong tomato seed variety to farmers would close his chapter at the seed company, and open a new one as the man at the helm of one of the leading seed companies in Naivasha.
“We got a tomato seed variety from India that had been bred to operate in different climatic conditions from ours. When we distributed it to farmers, they harvested very poor quality tomatoes. It was too late. It broke my heart because most of these farmers were ordinary guys, whose entire livelihoods were pegged to farming. I decided I needed to do something about it. Something that would make me in charge of what seeds were being sold to farmers,” Andys said.
That heralded the birth of Premier Seed Company. Armed with the will and determination to give farmers the right farming advice, Andys worked with breeders from Netherlands to develop the first tomato variety.
“I sent proposals to breeders who would be interested in working with me since I did not have the seed breeding capacity. So I would do an analysis of the growing conditions of the seed, including topography, climatic and weather conditions, and in collaboration with research institutions like KALRO, which I would then send to the breeding company I had identified in Netherlands who would then breed a variety suited for this market,” Andys said.
That is how Tomato Premier F1 was developed. It is the flagship seed variety of the company that is enjoying fanatical uptake among smallholder farmers due to its superior traits. It is the fastest maturing variety in Africa, taking 60 days to mature, compared to other varieties that takes between 90 and 105 days. The variety has been bred to respond to the challenges of the 21st century including harsh weather and pest and disease attacks. The variety also has longer shelf life, especially the time it takes, after ripening, especially when exposed to sunlight. It takes 15 days to go bad compared to other varieties that go bad between seven and ten days.
“This is due to the nature of its outer shell which is hard and tough. When I was talking to the breeders I didn’t just tell look at the growing conditions, I was also looking at the market aspect and I wanted a variety that farmers can keep for a bit of time should they not get the market right away,” Andys added.
Premier Seeds has gone ahead to get other vegetable varieties bred and distributed to farmers top among them hybrid onions, cabbages, chives, basil and sweet pepper.
But Andys knew it would be a tough sell trying to sell his produce to skeptical farmers who have been used to big promises with little to show for it from agro input companies. He decided to start a demonstration plot to walk the farmers through the growing conditions.
“We invite farmers and start with them right from planting. So we get our seed variety and plant it alongside a variety from another company which we do not name. This also offers a perfect training opportunity for farmers as we walk with them through the entire food production chain; how to tend to the seedlings, how to propagate, when to spray among others,” he said.
Farmers then review the mature produce before making a decision on what to purchase. It is a model that is working, and which has drawn over 8,000 smallholder farmers that frequent the demonstration plots and buy the seeds.
And as the appetite for information on seed varieties grow, Premier Seeds is working with a 60 members’ farmer group in Bahati Constituency of Nakuru County who are now moving into greenhouse in a model that also has Chase Bank as the financial partner.
“The biggest headache for every farmer is the market for their produce. So this model ensures that farmers are in clusters and deliver goods in bulk to buyers we have identified. This is one model we are sure is sustainable because markets are particularly hard for small holder farmers due to buyers’ being jittery about the capacity of one farmer to be consistent in delivery,” Andys added.
Farmers in the group pay a 10 per cent deposit, about Sh43,000, for the construction of greenhouses which they deposit at their Chase Bank fixed deposit account. This is to lock out those that are not serious. Chase Bank then finances for the construction of greenhouses and purchase of inputs like seeds, fertilizers, chemicals and farm management by Premier seeds. When selling farmers are given receipts for individual produce delivered and payment credited to their accounts. Repayment of the loan is flexible and is based on the agreement of the farmer with the bank.
At the moment, 15 greenhouses have been constructed and are operating with the farmers having planted the lucrative Chives, which are set for export. Premier Seeds has identified a market for them. Simon anticipates that each farmer will harvest at least 120 kilogram of chives which will fetch Sh1500 per kilo.
But it is a long process building markets for exports especially due to exporters and buyers’ strong insistence on good agricultural practices and traceability. Premier seeds doesn’t take chance, especially at a time when the country is receiving flak for high chemical content in some of its produce meant for export.
“We are very strict and also very involved with especially smallholder farmers who have had no prior experience in exports or in greenhouse farming. There is a log at the entrance of every greenhouse where farmers record when they sprayed the produce, irrigation or any farm management practice they were involved in. This is not just for their own good, but because exporters make impromptu visits to see the growing conditions,” Andys said.
With the success already being experienced in Bahati, Andys now wants to take this revolution to another level both in terms of geographical reach and in value addition.
“Our smallholder farmers are the most enthusiastic about new innovations. They are not just getting it. I want to do this across the country, not just as a business model, but because I have seen how empowered the farmers in Bahati have become. If 85 per cent of our farmers are small scale, imagine what this would do if each was this empowered. We can comfortably feed our people and export globally. I have witnessed it first hand,” Andys said.