Unlocking the potential of Africa's farmland
It's market day. The stalls and shops of Kagiyo town, in the Kenyan central district of Kirinyaga, are busy with trade in fresh produce and other goods. Suddenly, on the main street, a commotion starts up outside one of stores that sells seeds, tools and other farm inputs. From a speaker on top of a pick-up van a voice is calling farmers to come and see for themselves how they can triple yields. "This is a great way to meet farmers," says Johannes Masawu, a member of the promotion team. "In an hour we can talk with two hundred."
Farm Input Promotion Service (FIPS) has been running street-side events like this in western and central Kenya for the last three years. With 700 on-farm demonstration plots - as well as events at schools, shows and churches - the aim is to encourage farmers to take a look at the results of using fertiliser and improved maize varieties. Today, outside an agricultural inputs store, there are five promoters holding up posters with photos of farmers and plots of maize that have yielded double or triple the average harvest. But the farmers can take away more than images. "Having heard what we have to say, anyone can go inside the store to buy a small trial pack of fertiliser," explains FIPS Director, Paul Seward. "With each 1 kilo pack of fertiliser the purchaser gets a free 150 gram pack of Western Seeds hybrid maize."
Back at the promotion in Kagiyo town Paul Seward has moved inside the store and is encouraged to watch which seeds are shifting off the shelves. "I've just seen a lady buy six 2-kilo bags of the improved varieties we've been promoting. She's making an informed investment and she will get the reward in the season ahead."
Seeds were not the start. First came fertiliser. Normally fertiliser is only available in 50 kilo sacks which, at a cost of about US$180, is too costly for most of Kenya's five million small scale farmers. So FIPS decided that tiny packets - just one to two hundred grams - would give farmers the chance to invest, experiment and see for themselves the difference this input can make. Getting the right size packaging was one challenge. Just as important was getting a fertiliser that would suit Africa's soils.
For 25 years fertiliser formulations in Kenya had generally provided the same balance of nutrients and have not always best suited the soil and crops farmer want to grow. Athi River Mining, a large Kenyan company involved in manufacture of cement, industrial minerals and chemicals was ready to research and develop a new fertiliser. "What we discovered, in collaboration with a Kenyan University and the Kenya Agricultural Research Insititute," says Company Director, Pradeep Paunrana, "is that the majority of farmland in the country is quite acidic and lacks a range of important nutrients." The new fertiliser formulation contains a careful balance of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, as well as sulphur, calcium, magnesium and seven other micro-nutrients, including boron, copper, iron and zinc. Sales of the fertiliser - called 'Mavuno', which means 'good harvest' - have exceeded expectations; Athi River Mining is currently investing US$ 10 million to increase production capacity to 30,000 tonnes of Mavuno a year.
Something to shout about
Outside, FIPS promotion team member Mercy Wangechi is packing away the public address system on the team van. "I love my job," she says hoarsely. "I'm proud to be helping farmers like these to produce more on their land." She spots a face in the crowd. It is a face that features on several of the posters smiling out from a spectacularly good crop of maize. It is local farmer Jofri Kamisha, who has been happy to go public about the difference fertilizer and a switch to a different maize variety has made in unlocking the potential of his tiny part of Africa's farmland. "This is where I first bought Mavuno - just a little - to try," he explains to passers-by. "I have never harvested such high production after I planted a new maize with Mavuno. And I am happy to tell all other farmers how it happened!"