By George Munene
Coronavirus is playing both health havoc and business havoc with our world. But with every change that sweeps in, new opportunities arise for those who adapt fast enough, which for many farmers means moving rapidly into new planting of vegetables.
Caleb Karuga, a mixed farmer who keeps chicken, goats, and fish and plants horticultural products on his various farms, reports an uptick in mobile orders–“Could you deliver some managu, spinach and a kilogram of chicken?”–music to any farmer’s ears. Consumers have had less time to shop for food before the 7pm curfew kicks in, and the fear of navigating the notorious Nairobi markets has made people explore online delivery options.
“They are too many of us engaged in the production end of agriculture and not enough people focused on adding value to the other points of the value chain,” said Caleb. In this, he’s seen a niche he plans to fill, offering a scaled-down Amazon delivery service. But he thinks that this will be more than a short-term opportunity. Once people experience the affordability and convenience of having food delivered to their doorstep, he is sure they will remain hooked once the current pandemic is over.
Though many online platforms now offer farmers alternative markets, he argues this has almost made them lazy. “Just posting your product and hoping isn’t good enough, we must explore tangible ways of engaging with the end consumer.” It’s an opportunity that he believes can create multiple tertiary jobs in agriculture.
The pandemic is also changing buying to favour some crops over others, for which reason Caleb, in the short-term, is majoring in vegetables. Land can be leased for Sh10,000 to Sh15,000 an acre (depending on location and access to water), and most vegetables are ready for harvest within three months. Sukuma, spinach, managu, mchicha – they are all cheap to set up, have a fast growth rate and are dietary necessities.
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He warns that with plenty of financial hits, this isn’t the time for any newbie farmer to actualise grandiose ideas of a 10-cow zero grazing unit. These are foremost capital-intensive to set up, and for those lucky enough to still be in a job, this is no time to be taking punts with their money, he warns. The cost of animal feed is bound to rise, as most maize will be channeled into feeding people and maize imports into the country are bound to decrease with other countries also grappling with this same pandemic.
With children at home, produce costs rising, reports of job cuts every other day and understandable anxiety about the future, he doesn’t see animal products flying off the shelves as these are now luxuries to most people.
But the scope for vegetables, he believes is strong. He encourages those keen to take up farming to study whatever agricultural undertaking they hope to enter and its market dynamics exhaustively. Beyond that, it really helps to have a passion for farming. Those who enter for a quick pandemic buck, won’t weather the inevitable failures along the way, he counsels.
In fact, said Caleb, he’s been fielding a lot of calls and online questions on agribusiness as many now review this period as a time to take up farming. He attributes the scale of the enquiries to a dearth of extension services to farmers, especially over this period of disruption. Kenyans are reluctant to pay for agricultural expertise, he said, but are finally coming around after scouring and failing to find on the internet the sort of geographical specific knowledge base he’s built up in his 10 years in farming.
Pius Muriithi, a farmer at Kiambere,Embu says he, too, will be focused on growing veggies in the short-term, but with an eye on cultivating tubers, as well as cereal and pulses, for the medium and long term. He also sees an opportunity for local farmers to earn more from basic horticultural products such as tomatoes and onions as border control measures cut off imports from Ethiopia and Uganda, countries that have traditionally exported foodstuff to Kenya, but will now have to rethink as they look to shore up their own food reserves.
Mr Muriithi says he’s seen the government-run halal abattoir, the only one close to him, close down due to the pandemic. This has created an unsatisfied market that wouldn’t otherwise have existed and that could be filled by private capital.
All around, the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the agricultural sector. It’s a time when adaptability and strong research will be the features that deliver the strongest incomes.