A future for organic agriculture in Africa?
A strong commitment to trade as a means to tackle poverty has been declared by the new UK Secretary of State for International Development, Douglas Alexander. But, for Kenya's organic fruit and vegetable growers, the statement has a hollow ring. Towards the end of September 2007, the UK Soil Association will conclude its consultation on the environmental impact of air freight for agricultural produce and the implications for future certification of imported organic products.
The Soil Association's recent summit on this issue (held in July 2007), and its ongoing consultation, has the support of many farmers and environmentalists in the UK. But the prospect of labelling air-freighted products so that they effectively lose their organic status has been described by Kenya's organic produce industry as 'just another' non-tariff trade barrier. To Kenyan farmers, who see the rising number of British tourists flying to Kenya each year, the prospect of loss of organic status smacks of hypocrisy as well as being a slap in the face for their intensive efforts to meet international organic standards.
Organic produce, including cut flowers, dried herbs and essential oils, is the fastest growth area of Africa's horticultural industry. If, however, an export ban on airfreighted organic products is implemented, will Africa's certified organic producers be forced to turn to domestic markets and accept non-premium prices or is it possible for Africa to develop a home market for premium organic produce?
Going it alone
A growing interest in organic produce is increasingly evident in Kenya. Su Kahumbu, a certified organic farmer in Limuru, 40 kilometres from Nairobi, has recently begun marketing her produce through a 'home delivery' basket scheme to regular customers. Her range of produce - lettuces, broccoli, cabbages, onions, bananas, egg plant (aubergine), spinach and kales - are all grown on her 10-acre farm. Kahumbu also has an organic produce shop in the upmarket area of Gigiri in Nairobi as well as a supplying a local supermarket chain.
High income shoppers appear to be undeterred by the higher prices of organic products and several Kenyan supermarket chains are now dedicating more space to organic produce. Hotels and restaurants are also showing an increasing interest in sourcing organic produce. Situated in the heart of Nairobi, Bridges restaurant opened in 2006 with a menu based entirely on organically produced foods, including its cooking oil, all sourced from local suppliers.
Seeing the way ahead
Esther Bett, programme coordinator of the Kenyan organisation Resources Oriented Development Initiative, believes that the promotion of organic produce for those receiving anti-retroviral therapy could boost the local market. But, ultimately, purchase of organic products is a lifestyle choice, Bett is herself an organic farmer and is keen to see the government formulate a policy to promote organic produce . She is also hopeful that ongoing trade discussions by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) will offer a wider market for organically produced food within the continent. Meanwhile the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) is pushing for legislation to oblige stockists of fresh agricultural produce to distinguish between organically and conventionally grown produce
For local farmers, gaining organic certification for the export market is far from easy and, if the UK Soil Association succeeds in changing the requirements for meeting organic standards, many feel Kenyans feel that their efforts will have been in vain. Meanwhile, for Su Kahumbu the growing demand for her basket scheme and from her supermarket buyers is putting her under pressure to expand her production. "Right now I have 15 customers to whom I supply a basket daily and there are many more enquiries. The numbers are impressive and I expect to invest more in this area."
With contributions from: Zablon Odhiambo
Date published: September 2007
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