A CASE FOR EMPOWERMENT OF MARGINALIZED RURAL BASED SMALLHOLDER FARMERS.
Agriculture has been a dominant contributor to Kenya’s economy for many years, accounting for about 27% of the GDP and about 60% of the workforce. The sector is dominated by smallholder farmers, majority of whom are based in fairly marginalized rural areas; it is estimated that up to 70% of rural populations earn their living either directly or indirectly from agriculture. Despite the opportunities and potential in the sector and despite toiling day in and day out on their farms, rural based small holder farmers remain largely disenfranchised, poor and vulnerable to shocks despite collectively being the major contributors of labour and land to the sector. This points to a disconnect that warrants urgent and coordinated intervention by multiple stakeholders.
Smallholder farming is characterized by low productivity, post-harvest losses and little participation in market decisions. These challenges are as a result of several factors:
- Lack of information: Rural based small holder farmers often lack information in regards to pertinent issues such as technology, soil management, improved seeds, pest & nutrient management, policies, weather and markets.
- Poor access to inputs, modern technologies and extension services.
- Over reliance on rain fed production.
- Use of inappropriate fertilizers that sometimes further compound existing soil acidity or alkalinity problems.
- Poor infrastructure.
- Low access to credit.
- Unfriendly tax regime and policies e.g. the recently introduced 16% Value Added Tax on agricultural inputs that further pushed critical inputs out of the reach of farmers; excessive cess and zoning regulations in sectors such as the sugar industry which has left farmers vulnerable to exploitation.
Farmer focused interventions
In order to empower marginalized smallholder farmers, interventions must be deliberately targeted towards addressing not just the underlying constraints that lead to depressed yields but also factors that limit their full participation in markets (value chains). Grassroots level interventions should focus on: creating awareness on modern practices and how modern techniques can be blended with traditional tacit knowledge; demonstrating advantage of modern technologies and practices to farmers; facilitating sustainable and timely access to yield enhancing inputs and technologies; addressing affordability issues and access to credit or capital; addressing challenges relating to market and on improving infrastructure.
These interventions can be achieved through various means:
- Providing access to game changing information: Because modern channels of information distribution both print and digital may not be easily available and/or affordable in marginalized areas, stakeholders must find innovative ways of providing information to such farmers. This can be achieved through farmer field schools, agricultural demonstration centers, community champions, village promotions or field days, farm tours (exchange visits) and through extension services that give priority to information sharing over product selling. Market actors such as village based farm input stockists who are in direct contact with rural based farmers should be encouraged to change the way they interact with farmers such that emphasis is on information sharing rather than selling because empowered farmers will ultimately push sales volumes up.
- Demonstrating advantage: Farmers tend to shy away from trying out ‘new’ concepts and prefer to first observe how pilot projects perform. Apart from establishing demonstration sites and carrying out village promotions, farmers should also be encouraged to ‘learn by doing’ and because they may be reluctant to adopt certain practices due to long held practices and traditions, they can be encouraged to first try out the new techniques on small sections of their farms before adopting them fully.
- Facilitating access to yield enhancing inputs and technologies: Services such as soil testing & soil management and technologies such as irrigation are often beyond the reach of small holder farmers due to either lack of capital or simply because they are not available within a given locality. Farmers must therefore be encouraged to save and accumulate capital through such initiatives as ‘table banking’ and village based SACCOS. However, because markets are supply and demand driven, farm inputs providers must also be encouraged to design systems and models that enable them to effectively and profitably serve the small holder market.
- Innovative extension services: Innovative ideas such as village based ‘plant health clinics’ should be encouraged. Extension service providers can, for example, be provided with rapid soil testing kits that allow for quick testing of primary and secondary soil nutrients and PH. Such techniques will not only improve yields as a result of informed recommendation and use of appropriate fertilizers and lime where needed but will also help to preserve the quality of soil and curtail spread of pests.
- Market access: Market access by small holder farmers can be limited by factors such as lack of market information, low or poor quality yields, long physical distances between farms and market centers, poor infrastructure and artificial barriers such as unscrupulous brokers. Such barriers can be tackled by encouraging traditional barter trade systems such that the rural communities provide the first market for their own produce. Further access can be achieved through product aggregation to improve scale, improved extension services to improve quality and by lobbying relevant stakeholders to improve rural access roads and other infrastructure such as market centers, drying and cold storage areas. A systematic way of disseminating market information through mobile phone text messages can be encouraged.
The role of critical players in the agricultural market system
Rural transformation requires the coordinated input of multiple stakeholders.
- The Government: The primary role of the government in trade is to create an environment that enables the private sector (and that includes the rural based farmers) to thrive, compete effectively and participate fully in the agricultural value chains. Taxation, policies, infrastructure, environmental conservation, enabling support industries such as manufacture of fertilizer, basic service provision such as health and infrastructure are just some of the areas that the government can tackle in a way that encourages the development of smallholder farmers.
- The Private Sector: The private sector plays a critical role of mobilizing capital and making requisite inputs and information available to farmers. Small holder farmers need multiple private sector players such as providers of credit, machinery and direct inputs. The private sector must be encouraged to operate in such a way that is beneficial to small holder farmers.
- The NGO Sector: The NGO sector has traditionally played a pivotal role in ensuring last mile connectivity for rural based small holder farmers. This sector can play a very pivotal role in information sharing, demonstrating advantage and lobbying various stakeholders to be farmer focused rather than profit focused.
- Farmers: Farmers must be aggressive in seeking information and lobbying for a better operating environment. They must be encouraged to form groups through which they can aggregate products, seek financing and lobby for a better operating environment.
Potential Impact of empowering marginalized rural based small holder farmers
Empowerment of small holder farmers presents perhaps the single largest opportunity to revitalize rural economies and improve incomes and livelihoods of rural populations. With farming being the major economic activity in rural areas, improved fortunes in farming can lead to numerous benefits including:
- Farmers enjoying improved incomes.
- Improved incomes will mean improved health, education and general well being of rural communities. This will have the added benefit of reducing rural-urban migration.
- Empowerment of youth and women which in turn reduces unemployment and contributes to peace and security.
- Reduced poverty and inequality.
- Improved food security.
- Growth in local economies due to improved cash inflows from produce sales and expansion of farmer support industries such as transport, processing and input supplies.
- Processors of food products will benefit from improved and predictable supplies.
- Consistent supply of foodstuffs will stabilize commodity prices and drive down inflation
- Improvement in rural economies will translate into an improved national GDP.
The constraints highlighted and interventions proposed are by no means exhaustive. Continuous and consistent efforts at innovation is required of everyone along the value chain. In developing countries such as Kenya, agriculture plays a very vital role in stimulating economic growth and given that small holder farmers form the bulk of the participants, marginal increases in their productivity and income can see dramatic improvements in rural economies and the national GDP at large. For success to be realized all stakeholders must come together on a round table as equal partners and put their best foot forward. Mainstreaming of women and youth must be given priority and empowerment strategies must be cognizant of unique local circumstances and must not ignore local community tacit knowledge. Emphasis should be on enabling farmers to make correct choices and to participate fully in markets so that there can be sustainability beyond intervention.
Clifton Opala is the Founder and Director of Ace Intergrated Services, an agricultural services firm that is passionate about smallholder farmer empowerment, food security and environmental conservation. Services offered by Ace Intergrated Services include Greenhouse Construction & Management, Irrigation Systems Installation, Construction of Farm Structures, Farm Management, Farmer Training and Research.