.Organic farming is growing rapidly in Kenya, but for many smallholder farmers, securing the certification to earn supermarket and export contracts as organic producers is proving hard to reach. The answer, say experts, is to work as groups.
According to Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), one of the world’s leading institutes in the field of organic agriculture, organic farmland in Africa has doubled in area in the last decade, to 2.1m hectares, with the biggest organic centres in East and North Africa and the crops they grow enjoyed the world over.
But, in Kenya, certification of smallholders who avoid synthetic fertilisers and pesticides has remained difficult due to a lack of information, scant government support and the high cost of getting certifying documents.
To become a member of Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) or Association of Organic Agriculture Practitioners of Kenya, which helps in training of organic farmers and facilitation of the certification process, farmer groups must pay a Sh10,000 registration fee before factoring in the yearly renewal fee, training costs and, finally, certification fee by the relevant government agencies.
Beatrice Wangui who grows arrowroot organically on her small plot in Gathigiriri village near Gilgil Town says that despite the crop being listed among the high-value crops in Kenya, she has not been able to access the formal organic market due to lack of certification of her cropland.
“I have tried looking for supply tenders for my produce in supermarkets and big groceries, but the lack of proper documents for me and other farmers within this area has limited us to local open-air markets,” said Wangui.
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Beatrice says she learnt about the organic farming methods from a grass roots farming group known as the Seed Savers Network, which is based in Gilgil. But with access to the international market requiring an interface with multiple government agencies, getting someone to introduce or take smallholders through the process can be critical.
Organic farming certification process
It is mandatory that all producers and processors of organic products keen to enter export market must register their enterprises in order to be recognised by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), which has agents or branches in different countries.
In Kenya IFOAM is represented by EnCert Limited.
The process of certification starts by the producer changing his or her mind-set to go organic then applies for certification by filling a form from EnCert.
Inspectors then come to the respective farm to verify if the producer adheres with the organic production laws. They check on record keeping, the surrounding and inside of the farm, seed and seed treatments, fertilizer and plant protection scheme, storage facility and finally packaging and labelling of the produce.If the inspector is satisfied with all the above conditions, he or she presents the findings to the registration committee for approval. If the committee approves the enterprise, the owner is issued with an international number and later organic farming certificate is issued.
The certificate is thereafter required to be renewed annually.
Chances for Small-scale farmers
The challenges of the certification process make it more viable, say experts, if farmers who own small farms work together and produce intensively for domestic markets as they advance to international markets.
Ronnie Vernooy, a Genetic Resource Policy Specialist at Bioversity International, says such farmers can work in groups, specialise in producing particular crops and target specific markets.
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“Farmers can, for example, decide to produce organic herbs, set prices and look for a suitable market they can sustainably supply,” says Vernooy.
KOAN also can come in handy for these producers in building knowledge, including through the organisation’s annual membership newsletter.
According to Okisegere Ojepat, CEO, Fresh Produce Consortium of Kenya, apart from financial assistance, training and research is needed in the sector to unlock future prospects of smallholder organic farmers in Kenya and beyond.
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“The industry is held back by more than just money. A lack of crop-specific research and equipment, including understanding of weather patterns and pest control, is keeping farmers from innovating. Pushing for more organic farming without building technical capacity would not be sustainable in the long run,” said Ojepat.