Organic farming provides alternatives to failed farm techniques

Kenya’s organic farming has fast gained grounds with over 200,000 farmers practicing and over 15,000 exporters involved in sale of organically produced crops, a venture that has also seen partnerships and organic only markets open up in the country as traditional farming methods fail.

Dennis Mukai from Nyeri made a decision to venture into organic farming three years ago, news that were greeted with skepticism from his counterparts who saw numerous pitfalls in the exercise. “Organic farming was still an alien practice in my locality and most farmers were used to conventional cultivation of food crops using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. They warned me against plunging into the unknown,” Mukai said.

Mukai has however defied doomsday predictions from sceptical neighbours to become a formidable voice of organic farming in the larger Embu County. He invented a popular organic avocado tree called Jack2 which has gained popularity across Kenya and overseas for producing fruits rich in mineral and vitamin content. Jack2 has outpaced other conventional varieties in production of avocado fruits. Mukai revealed that strong influence from his father inspired him to explore innovative options that would improve quality of avocado trees in his backyard.

“My father was given avocado seeds by missionaries and this gave me a head start in cultivation of this edible fruit. It took me thirty years to invent Jack2 through crossbreeding local varieties with other species,” said Mukai. He disclosed that demand for Jack2 avocado has grown steadily for the last three years.

“Many Kenyans are buying the Jack2 seedlings which take three to four years to mature and produce avocado. The fruit is very popular owing to its nutritional value,” he said. Mukai has partnered with Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) to promote Jack2 avocado in the local market. Besides Jack2, Mukai also grows organic coffee and macadamia nuts in his four acre ancestral farm. An expanding market niche for organic products locally and overseas has inspired small scale farmers to embrace organic farming in greater numbers.

Michael Gitau, the Chairman of Thika-based Central Farmers and Consumer Organization, says that organically grown fruits and vegetables have gained popularity among middle and high income households in Kenya. Gitau heads an umbrella body of 28 organic farmers groups that represent 5,000 small scale farmers in Thika County. He says that these farmers are growing fruits such as pineapples, pawpaw and oranges using compost manure.

Gitau remarked that “farmers are earning a lot of money from organically grown fruits which they sell to affluent communities in Nairobi and small towns within Thika County.” Organised markets for organic products have ensured that small scale farmers are shielded from exploitative middlemen. Triza Njoki,the marketing Executive, Green Dreams says that “people now can buy organically grown vegetables, fruits and a host of value added products like honey, olive and coconut oil in shops.”

Green Dreams is promoting establishment of organic shops in strategic geographical points in Nairobi to ensure that organic products are sold in a structured manner. According to Njoki, products sold at the shops are sourced from small scale farmers.
She adds that Green Dreams has developed home delivery systems that make it possible for a customer to order a basket of assorted fresh fruits and vegetables.

The market for organic products in Kenya has been on a growth trajectory and farmers are as well keen on obtaining a slice of the pie in the global organic market currently estimated at $50 million. The European Union is the largest market for Kenyan organic products that include fruits and vegetables, honey, herbs and spices and essential oils.

Samuel Ndungu, the National Market Development Advisor, Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) notes that “demand for organic products by Kenyan  consumers has risen. Currently, every green grocer wants to start an organic section in their shops.” He cited organic shops in Karen and Lavington suburbs of Nairobi that were opened recently.

Ndungu revealed that KOAN has partnered with municipalities to develop organic farmers’ markets in many Kenyan towns. The entire organic sector in Kenya is worth $10.5 million annually and is growing. According to Ndungu, the domestic market comprises 10 percent of that share. The rise in demand for organic products globally has created opportunities for Kenyan smallholders.

An estimated 15,000 farmers in Kenya are involved in certified organic production and export, while a further 200,000 farmers are doing organic farming for domestic market. Ndungu stressed that organic farming has multiple benefits to farmers in terms of food security and revenue streams.

“Another advantage with organic farming is that farmers are able to sell directly because middlemen are phased out in the value chain. Farmers as well interact with the market closely and understand latest dynamics,” Ndungu said. The affluent urban middle classes and populations above forty years form the bulk of consumers of organic products.

According to Ndungu, “this is a population segment that understands the health benefits of eating organic foods and has disposable income to buy them”.  Kenyan organic products have met international standards thus boosting their competitiveness in the overseas markets. These standards are mandatory and are set by European Union, the United States and Japan.

Jack Juma, Program Manager, in charge of Standards and Certification at KOAN, clarifies that these standards are very stringent and have cost implication to farmers. “No export can be carried out without certification which entails scrutinizing the entire production chain from agronomy practices, processing, transport and storage,” said Juma.

KOAN is assisting farmers with training and capacity building to boost their understanding of these standards.