Nairobi, Kenya: The most disgruntled Kenyan today must be the farmer who chose to stick with coffee, tea or sugarcane — never mind that coffee, tea and sugar still take their pride of place on nearly every Kenyan household’s breakfast table.
These farmers are, indeed, a very angry lot, and justifiably so. Which explains why, mid-last year, some coffee farmers in central Kenya threatened to uproot and burn their trees and venture into cultivation of other crops they believed would yield better returns.
Now, that’s the height of indignation and disillusionment. But this is not how things have always been. Any Kenyan who went to primary school in the 1980s and ’90s will probably remember with nostalgia history lessons on food and cash crops.
In layman’s terms, which the teachers of the day so diligently used in transferring knowledge to our young minds, food crops were those cultivated purely for subsistence or local consumption. Cash crops, on the other hand, were the highly valued crops cultivated to rake in gargantuan profits for the farmers and top dollar, in foreign exchange, for the government.
At the top of the Kenyan cash, crop pile was coffee, tea, and sugarcane. Tragically, over the years, as the country moved from an agro-economy to a semi-industrial economy, the three have, inevitably, fallen on hard times.
The present-day coffee, tea or sugarcane farmer earns a pittance, for much less than what a miraa (khat) counterpart in Meru earns.
Cases of impoverished farmers abandoning their crops have become common in the ailing agricultural sector. Too often, in recent years, coffee and sugarcane farmers have decried gross misuse of their funds and resources by agencies mandated with the management of these two key sectors.
The situation has been worsened by the infiltration of these sectors by powerful cartels whose sole business is often to control prices, hoard or, worse, flood the market with cheaper imports.
For far too long, individuals who own neither a coffee tree nor a sugarcane plant have been impoverishing smallholder farmers in Kenya.
Such has been the misery of many a farmer in Kenya. Thankfully, in the wake of last year’s threats from the farmers, the government, which had hitherto been ambivalent to the plight of the farmers, announced a revival of the ailing sector.
At the time, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri said the government would carry out a forensic audit on all coffee factories to weed out the notorious cartels.
Other measures include distribution of a million coffee seedlings, subsidized fertilizer to farmers as well as soil testing, all aimed at increasing productivity.
In the CS’s own words, the government is seeking to use coffee as a credible vehicle for rural development and wealth creation among smallholder farmers.
The government also expressed its willingness to reduce the cost of production of coffee by providing adequate planting materials and training farmers on the latest skills and services and the best agricultural practices.
Should all these promises be fulfilled, the Coffee Directorate estimates that, by 2022, the country’s coffee production will more than double from 45,000 tonnes to 100,000 tonnes.
This is an impressive roadmap to the sector’s revival, which should make many coffee farmers reconsider their decision to abandon the crop.
The tea sector has also had its fair share of turbulence. However, there have been some positive stories coming through lately. The most significant is the Kenya Tea Development Agency’s (KTDA) recent launch of a smartcard to curb the persistent problem of theft and weight falsification.
In what is truly a technological novelty in the local agricultural sector, more than 560,000 KTDA members will soon be issued with the smartcards. These will be synchronized with the farmer’s mobile phone number and the factory’s electronic weighing system, making it possible for them to directly authorize sale and purchase of their produce.
Sadly, the future of the sugarcane sector does not look as promising. Operations in several millers in the sugar belt have long ground to a halt. The once-lucrative cane farming has, in the practical sense of the word, turned bitter-sweet for most smallholder farmers.
With the government seemingly uncertain on how to fix the cane dilemma, it’s only understandable that political leaders from cane-growing zones are now imploring smallholder farmers to cut their losses and venture into other crops. (Source/ Daily Nation)