Nelson Maina – Public Relations Manager, Elgon Kenya Limited
More than three quarters of smallholder farmers in Kenya and the region are stuck with low yields at every harvesting season in what researchers attribute to a systemic information gap on vital farming techniques. The situation is further exacerbated by the changes in weather which have gone on to depress rainfall and ultimately take a toll on yields. Ironically Kenya is home to dozens of research institutions of international repute that continue to produce groundbreaking innovation and findings. From drought tolerant and high yielding crop varieties to state of the art pest and disease control arsenals, even Kenyan scientists have gone on to win worlds most coveted acclaims.
But farmers continue to struggle with varieties that yield dismal returns per unit area, pests and diseases that are responsible for up to 40 per cent of yield losses, post-harvest losses as produce takes long to get to markets, and even when they do poor prices as market forces like oversupply and rogue traders conspire against farmers.
It is a dicey situation, at a time when studies show that by 2050, nine billion of us will be demanding food grown from seed. Growing enough quality food from dwindling land will be increasingly difficult and the pressure will be on farmers to maximize yields and produce crops of ever higher quality.
Yet at the heart of reversing this sorry state of affairs lies information access. Interventions by institutions like Food and Agriculture Authority, FAO, have shown that farmers who are empowered with knowledge on even the basic of farm management practices have gone on to more than double yields. But government that once played this crucial role through the extension services seems overwhelmed if the number of existing extension officers are anything to go by. Even as the number of farmers grow, government seems to have scaled down on this all important aspect.
Still we must all make our hay while it is still shining. For provision of information to spur innovative ways of producing food is too crucial a role to be left to government alone.
Private sector and research institutions must step up to this challenge and avert a possible catastrophe. Farmers have indeed expressed thirst for farming information as has been evident with the plant clinics that agro input company Elgon Kenya has rolled out. The attendance has been overwhelming. Acting as platforms that bring together farmers and experts under one roof to interactive and compare notes, the clinics have been an eye opener, about the yawning gap between policy issues and farmers? realities and needs.
Inspired by the growing quest for information Elgon Kenya Ltd, has gone ahead to unveil a first of its kind information center at its headquarters to allow farmers receive professional advice and agronomic support before making any purchases. The idea is to ensure that farmers understand what they want to farm and farm it from a point of information. Such are crucial steps in transforming lands into acres of bumper harvests.
But times have changed and so has information distribution and with the ubiquitous technology, we have to court ICT if we are to count any tangible gains from the sector. It is heart-warming to see the revolution and disruption technology is having on farming, from managing voracious pests to informing farmers on the price of goods in various markets in real time. Players in this space have quoted a monumental shift in farming trends and improved earnings among farmers interacting with technology. Elgon Kenya aware of this pivotal role is also embracing technology, with eyes trained especially on the young farmers who are finding solace and fortunes in modern farming. If we are to rope in our youth, we need to entice them with what appeals to them. The Elgon Kenya online information centre allows for real time interaction between the company’s agronomists and farmers on any farming issues while allowing farmers to place their orders and receive them at the convenience of their farms. This not only saves time and resources but improves how information flows from providers to users.
Kenya is a land of plenty, billed by respected institutions like the Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO and World Bank as the agriculture powerhouse of Africa. We can indeed live up to this honour by going back to basics, like bridging the gap between research and our smallholder farmers by communicating. Information for our farmers is power and a sure bet to increased yields.
Nelson Maina is communication manager at Elgon Kenya Limited