Horticultural farmers go back to school to chase lost exports

Horticultural farmers are learning new and superior ways of growing their produce at special schools  with the aim of boosting exports at a time when Kenya is facing numerous bans.

The schools organized by Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya (FPEAK), teach farmers how to grow crops according to the standards of the Good Agricultural Practice Code (GAP). This comes at a time when Kenya’s horticultural produce have received a backlash in importing countries either due to exceeding the recommended traces of pesticides or being infested by pests.

 “Smallholder farmers hold the solution to hunger and poverty in rural areas,” says Napthaly Kariuki of the Horticultural Produce Marketing Association of Kenya (HPMAK). “To get accepted in international markets, both the European Union (EU) and East African, you need to grow according to the best practice, and that means GAP.

There are about 250 certificates awaiting distribution on the desk set up by the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya (FPEAK), which is spearheading the campaign to help farmers across the East African Community (EAC) grow food for tables in EU states and in neighbouring countries.

“I am so happy today. I have learned things that will help me make my shamba (smallholding) grow better produce to sell for me and my family. This is like getting a prize at school,” said Grace Wambui, who grows beans and tomatoes nearby.

“Growing fresh produce employs about one million people in Kenya, and it’s one of the top three export earners. Smallholders account for about 70 percent of the flagship products Kenya exports – French beans, Snow peas and Snap peas – so teaching farmers to get with the GAP programme is absolutely vital,” says FPEAK’s Francis Wario.

The GAP standards are international norms of how to grow good crops for today’s markets – everything from hand washing before harvesting to what pesticides, fertilizers and other inputs are acceptable – and in general that means the fewer the better.

Wario is the lead teacher in a programme funded by TradeMark East Africa which is part of a bigger TMEA drive to help EAC states approximate and harmonise the standards of their products to be fit to fight in the 21st century global market.

Part of the programme is to train local technical experts to monitor and follow how the GAP standards are being implemented by farmers, and to advise and guide where necessary. They receive special awards for their studies.
So far FPEAK has trained about 2,000 small-scale farmers in Kenya and is now carrying its pilot programme to the other EAC members to ensure adherence to the strict rules about pesticide residues and other production norms on which the EU insists.

“If we trained everyone who wants to come to our classes, there would be classes of about 5,000, but we cannot cope with that sort of number. But we can reach smaller numbers. So for every one farmer, you can calculate that our programme reaches another ten, because they cooperate and work together to maximize yields and exports,” Wario said.

Kenyan producers of delicate French beans learned the lesson the hard way in January 2013 when Kenya’s fresh produce was listed as ‘high risk’ by the EU, which takes 80 percent of Kenyan produce, for having unacceptable levels of pesticide residue.

Under an EU directive, all subsequent consignments were put on alert for interception and inspection. “Once you get one alert, the inspections increase, and the market narrows,” said Wario. So widespread use of the GAP standards is vital to ensuring smooth and continued access to the EU markets.

“Everybody has to be in the GAP system or nobody will sell to the EU market,” Wario added. “Those who don’t understand the standards will mess it up for everybody.” Rejection of a consignment by the EU has a knock-on effect at the level of exporters, who become reluctant to enter contracts with farmers unless they are certain that the GAP standards are being applied.

“To export these days food safety is absolutely the key. So if a farmer comes to us and he or she has a certificate saying they have learned the GAP standards, I can promise you with 100 percent certainty that an exporter will enter a contract with you, and you will sell,” says Boniface Eepa of the East African Growers Association, a leading exporter of fresh produce from the region.