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February 20, 2019

WYCLIFFE MUGA: No easy answers for small-scale farmers


At a meeting held just over a week ago at the Kianyaga Catholic Hall, the Trade Cabinet Secretary promised radical reforms in the coffee sector. The proposals included the setting up of a coffee exchange and online trading that would “cut off all middlemen and eradicate brokers and cartels which have controlled the sector for years.”

Similar pledges have actually been made for many years now. But, in general, the lot of coffee farmers in Kenya has not been a happy one. Still, the real tragedy here, is that even if the CS’s proposals are implemented to the letter, very little will change.

To understand why this is so, have a look at this report from an online newsletter, NumLock, which specialises in the use of statistics to tell a story:

“…the volatile cocaine production industry is having a banner year: coca shrub land is up 17 per cent in Colombia to 171,000 hectares, up from 48,000 hectares in 2013…One reason for the additional acreage is that coffee prices are down 38 per cent since the start of 2017, making the pivot to cocaine apparently a great financial decision for former coffee farmers…”

Now Colombian coffee is actually more favoured by international buyers and much more in demand than Kenya’s best Arabica coffee. So, when you see Colombian farmers give up on coffee and start growing the coca plant instead — thus inserting themselves into the supply chain of the notoriously violent cocaine trade — you know that no amount of online trading is going to save Kenyan coffee farmers from a continued slide into destitution.

All in all, we have to admit that there are no easy answers to this policy challenge of coming up with ways in which small-scale farmers can generate more money by the work they do on their small farms.

The only consolation here is that — as with so many other challenges facing the nation — other countries have been here before us and managed to overcome these precise hurdles.

Consider for example the work of the American agronomist Dr Norman Borlaug, who in 1970 received the Nobel Prize for Peace, for his work in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Here is an extract from one of the many books on his work:

“After thousands of crossing of wheat, Borlaug managed to come up with a high-yield hybrid that was parasite-resistant and wasn’t sensitive to daylight hours, so it could be grown in varying climates. Importantly it was a dwarf variety, since tall wheat expended a lot of energy growing inedible stalks and collapsed when it grew too quickly. The new wheat was quickly introduced all over Mexico.

“In fact, by 1963, 95 per cent of Mexico’s wheat was Borlaug’s variety and Mexico’s wheat harvest grew six times larger than it had been when he first set foot in the country nineteen years earlier.”

That is a figure which — especially in a nation whose population consists largely of poor, small-scale farmers — deserves very careful consideration.

Currently, the ‘poverty line’ is drawn at $1.90 (Sh200 ) per day. This adds up to about Sh6,000 per month and Sh73,000 per year.

What we are saying then, is that if the average Kenyan small-scale farmer had his annual harvest increased six times ,as happened in Mexico in the 1950s through Borlaug’s research, then that income would be Sh36,000 a month, and subsequently, Sh438,000 a year.

Any Kenyan small-scale farmer with such an income could not be said to be hopelessly mired in agrarian destitution. But of course, nothing in life is ever so simple as to allow for neat and precise answers.

If a country increases its harvest of any one crop, or group of crops by a factor of 600 per cent, then immediately the questions arise of how the surplus harvest will be stored, and where indeed it will be sold.

Nonetheless, we would as a nation be so much better off if our leaders were seeking solutions to the problems of storage and sales of farm produce, rather than dreaming of ‘radical reforms’ which can have no impact on the global glut of coffee beans.

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