Irrigation, expertise helps new livelihoods sprout in Kenya

15 September 2014
ITC News
Modern technology is playing an important role in the agriculture sector in Kenya. It helps farmers look beyond traditional products and start producing value-added goods, writes Susanna Pak.

John Ndegwa of Kiambu County, central Kenya, sells water bottles for a living. He is now looking to use water to cultivate a different kind of business.

‘I got this piece of land about two or three years ago,’ says the 32-year-old, who is turning his hand to farming. ‘It had re mained unused for that long and I thought, “why don’t I make use of this?” I thought what I can do is farming.’

His small plot of land, taking up barely 0.1 hectares about 40 kilometres north- east of Nairobi, is surrounded by stretches of arid, camel-coloured flatland. Digging a borehole to water the land would have been ‘very costly’, so Ndegwa decided on the more affordable option of drip irrigation. He bought a greenhouse kit earlier this year from Amiran Kenya, a self-described one- stop shop for agricultural products. It in cluded a drip-irrigation system, greenhouse, seeds, fertilizers and chemicals. It also pro vided him with in-person training and on- site assistance.

Emma Wanjiru, one of Amiran Kenya’s agronomists, visited Ndegwa to check on the progress of his onion field and the Cora zon tomatoes in the greenhouse. She was also on hand to provide advice and answer his questions.

"You see, I can make a ball – there is enough water for them,’ Wanjiru tells Nde gwa, holding up two fistfuls of dirt from the field. ‘At the beginning, it’s good to give them enough water until they establish the roots."


Agriculture remains a major industry in Kenya, accounting for 30% of gross do mestic product in 2012, according to the African Economic Outlook 2014 report on Kenya. The same report reveals that the sector recorded 8% and 5% output growth in the first two quarters of 2013 compared with 2% growth during the same period in 2012.

Throughout Africa, agriculture is a driver of economic growth, as smallholders ramp up production with the aid of public-p private partnerships and national agricul tural policies, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The EIU reports that the Kenyan government, for example, is funding the US$ 42 million Galana-Kulalu Food Security Project to increase production of crops, livestock and fish for domestic con sumption and export purposes.

And modern technology is playing an increasingly important role in this traditional sector. More than 60% of Kenyan house – holds now own a mobile phone.

‘Supposing I did not come,’ says Wanjiru, inspecting the rows of green tomatoes in Nde gwa’s greenhouse. ‘The farmer will just take some photos and send them to me on (the mobile-messaging application) WhatsApp.’ The ease and speed of exchanging in formation helps farmers to receive answers and solve problems quickly. The resulting benefits are tangible.

‘Most of us think this person just put a seed in the ground and then it grew, so I’m going to offer this price,’ Ndegwa says. ‘No, no, no, when you have a good crop, you can have bargaining power on that to get the better prices.’


To receive higher prices for their goods and secure a steady income, farmers need to start producing value-added goods, says Wariko Waita, Director of External Relations and Resource Mobilization at the Kenya Red Cross. The organization works to ensure better livelihoods for smallholders.

‘A lot of them are coming back to us and the issue is not hunger, but where’s the market?’ Waita says. ‘They’re moving from dependency to sustainability and to produc tion, so this is not just for survival. That’s why we’re really focused on looking at value addition.’

Value-added goods – such as dried fruits and vegetables, jams and sauces – sell at higher prices compared with fresh fruits and vegetables, which have a shorter shelf life and are less competitive in regional and global markets. Kenya is a member of several regional blocs, including the East African Community (EAC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

‘We would want to look beyond the traditional products. We don’t want to focus on tea and coffee – we have done so for so long,’ says Ambassador Nelson Ndirangu, Director of Economics and External Trade Affairs at the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ‘Now we need to move into non-traditional products, into high-end, high-value products.’


To promote value addition, the Kenyan government and private sector are working with the International Trade Centre on a trade-promotion project called ‘Supporting India’s Trade Preferences for Africa’. The programme is designed to increase exports to India from high-priority sectors in Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania.

Such trade-promotion efforts are helping to improve Kenya’s global economic profile. The World Economic Forum’s mostrecent Global Competitiveness Index shows that Kenya moved up 10 slots to 96 out of 144 nations in 2013-2014.


Ndegwa, for one, is hopeful about doing business in his country. He’s looking beyond selling vegetables to processing his tomatoes into sauces one day as a side business. For now, he’s focused on his first harvest.

‘I need to recover my costs,’ he says, having spent about 700,000 Kenyan shillings (US$ 8,000) to establish his farm. ‘I need to make money. So this is not the end of my farming here. Not yet.’

While there are still structures to be built and items to be fixed, the farm has come a long way since work began in February.

‘Of course there have been ups and downs,’ he says, standing near his onion field. ‘I want to get the outcome of this and build on it. If it was good, I want to make it better. If it was bad, I want to make it good. The result of this can only be told by how big my check will be.’