Rural youth shatter the myth of farming as a poor man's profession
Although Kenyan youths make up over 75 per cent of the country's population, farming is not considered an attractive option. This mentality has been entrenched in the education system that traditionally dooms the academically challenged to farming, otherwise known as the 'poor man's profession'. As a result, according to Kenya's agricultural ministry, the average age of a Kenyan farmer is 55.
However, the tide is beginning to turn. The lure of profitable farming is prompting even urbanites to ditch white collar jobs and trade their designer suits and shoes for overalls and gumboots. The resurgence of farming interest amongst the youth is down to efforts by private and public agricultural development organisations, pushing for the adoption of better agronomic techniques that guarantee high yields, and creating market linkages for their produce.
A model that is working
Kieni West County in Central Kenya is a region where this model is working and has turned young onion farmers, barely in their mid-30s, into prosperous entrepreneurs. Yet, prior to the 2005/2006 farming season, Timothy Mururi, then aged 30, remembers how the region was rife with poverty. Over 10,000 disillusioned farmers grew potatoes, wheat and onions whose optimum yield was 5,000 kgs a hectare.
However, an intervention in 2006/2007 by Farm Concern International (FCI), a private agriculture organisation that advocates for farming as a business, dramatically improved farmers' productivity. With funding from FARM-Africa, FCI introduced F1 hybrid onions which, with the right agronomic practices, guaranteed yields of 20,000 to 25,000 kg per ha.
FCI also organised farmers into groups of 1,000, dubbing them commercial villages (CVs). The CVs enabled farmers to get discounted inputs from agrodealers. A 500g tin of hybrid seeds which retailed at Sh3,100 (US$37), for example, was discounted to Sh600 (US$7) when bought in bulk. FCI, also advised farmers to bulk their onions and sell them through CVs to traders to gain bargaining power and competitive prices.
From landless to land owner
Mururi, previously a casual labourer who had no land, rented 0.2 ha for a year for Sh2,000 (US$24) to grow onions for two seasons. The hybrid varieties' yields didn't disappoint and he produced 4,000 kgs in a season. On harvest he sold a kilo of onions for Sh25-30 (US$0.30-0.36). Since then, Mururi has managed to rent a further 1.2 ha and in 2012 he bought 0.8 ha to further expand his onion farming.
Last season, from October 2011 to January 2012 Mururi achieved particular success. From 1.2 ha he harvested 15,000 kgs, which was remarkable because excess rains destroyed the crop of most farmers. As a result, demand rose and he is now selling a kilo for Sh50 (US$0.60). According to Steven Wachira, a veteran farmer and chairman of one of the CVs, Mururi's success is not isolated. He has witnessed young people leaving careers in towns that pay Sh25,000 (US$300) a month or more to grow onions at Kieni. The onion windfall has also resulted in a scramble for land, prices for which have shot up five fold since 2005. Land rental costs have also risen and Mururi is now charged Sh37,000 (US$450) per ha per year.
Better income from farm than city
In Unguja, Western Kenya 30 year old Isaac Ochieng Okwanyi swears never to return to Nairobi to look for a job. During the 2008 Kenyan post election violence when living in Mathare area of Nairobi, he was caught up in ethnic animosity. All his possessions were burnt and he left the city a desolate man. His initial attempt to farm ended dismally as his 0.6 ha land yielded only two 90 kg bags of maize.Today, 0.4 ha of the same land yields 16 bags of maize a season. The increase in yields was due to an intervention by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), which introduced lime to Unguja farmers to lower soil acidity to promote higher yields.
At current market prices a bag of maize is selling at Sh2,400 (US$30). But Okwanyi, the leader of the largely youthful 35 member Umoja Farmers Group, won't sell the maize at the current price. Instead, they are bulking and storing the maize to sell from March. He projects a bag of maize will then cost Sh4,000 (US$48).
For Okwanyi, farming has provided economic stability and enabled him to build a new house and diversify into horticulture. Politicians, realising his influence, are courting him to get youth votes, but he is not interested in politics. His focus, he says, is fighting hunger in Unguja and helping more youths become successful farmers. For that he performs some informal extension outreaches to around 200 young and older farmers.
Unlike Okwanyi, driven to farming by need, passion drove Samuel Gathigi, aged 35, to quit a plush job as an Information Systems Security Engineer at a top Kenyan airline in 2010 to farm. On his 10 ha farm in Tala, 45 km from Nairobi, he rents out greenhouses and farming space to urbanites interested in faming. He also runs boot-camps for children and young adults to highlight the important role farming plays in Kenya.
Credit and roads needed
Though farming has uplifted their lives, Mururi and Okwanyi lament the challenges of accessing credit facilities to expand their businesses. High interest rates and mistrust from financial institutions make them opt for cheaper farm inputs or do without. "Bank conditions are too stringent for us," says Okwanyi. Also, roads in Kieni are in a poor state, which prevents many farmers transporting onions to market on time and so they rot in the fields.
To further promote farming to youths, the government has launched a 'Farming is Cool' campaign, which highlights the possible monetary returns in farming. Last year through the Youth Enterprise Development Fund the government also committed around Sh180 million (US$2 million) in loans to youth groups to buy irrigation kits, greenhouses, water tanks, seeds and fertilisers.
Written by: James Karuga
Date published: April 2012
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