Joris Tielens

3 november 2020


The domestic sector needs much more attention, to unlock the potential of the horticultural sector in Kenya. Government policy on food safety and a local safe food label would bring opportunities to farmers, although not all farmers are suited to producing for this sector, according to Joyce Gema. ‘Our worries about inclusion should be about agricultural workers, not smallholders.’ The second of two articles on how diversification can increase farmers’ resilience.

In recent decades, Kenya has built a large horticulture sector that now exports flowers, French beans, peas, and Asian vegetables to Europe and elsewhere. This export sector has drawn a lot of investment and many programmes support its development; and the government tends to favour export companies rather than domestic producers.

Joyce Gema

However, in the horticultural sector, Joyce Gema believes that there is much more growth potential in the domestic and regional market than in the export market. Gema is an enthusiastic businesswoman and founder and managing director of Tradecare Africa, a social enterprise that provides advice and consultancy in the horticulture sector throughout Eastern Africa. She is involved in the implementation of horticulture projects for IDH Sustainable Trade and Wageningen University and Research. ‘We can maintain our production for export, but the future growth will be in the domestic market, where more and more people are looking for healthy vegetables as part of a more diverse diet, and where more and more people are able to pay for that. This model has potential of scaling to the regional market, to countries like Tanzania and Uganda.’

For vegetable growers in Kenya it is common to combine production for both export and domestic markets, Gema continues. ‘Most small and medium horticulture farmers grow crops like kale, cabbage, onions and tomatoes which they sell at the local market. In addition, many grow some other vegetables like French beans, peas or Asian vegetables which are collected at the farm gate or from aggregation centres by contracted exporters. Or they bring their produce to large commercial horticulture farms, from where it is exported. In combining production for the export and domestic markets, farmers avert risk.’

Farmers can get a good price for horticultural export products, but their cultivation involves higher risks. ‘Prices are volatile, and pests and disease may damage your crop. You need expensive seeds and fertiliser, and you are never sure whether you will be able to sell all your produce.’ European supermarkets have quality standards, including cosmetic standards for produce, rejecting as much as half of the yield when for example French beans are too short or not straight. ‘Farmers don’t understand such cosmetic standards.’

Food safety policy needed

In recent years, foreign companies and development projects have invested in technical training for farmers who grow export crops. Part of this is training on how to use and apply pesticides, to make sure that the produce is safe and does not contain pesticide residues once it is traded. The EU has strict food-safety guidelines for imported produce from Africa and has imposed import bans in the past based on these.

Gema’s good news is that training on export crops is useful for domestic food production too. She did research on this as part of Wageningen University and Research’s 3R Kenya project, which aims to make Kenya’s agro-sectors more resilient, robust and reliable. ‘We found that farmers who got training on good agricultural practices for export crops, also farm better when they turn to growing vegetables for the domestic market.’

However, to unlock the potential of the domestic market in the horticulture sector, much more is needed, Gema adds. ‘Kenya needs a national food safety policy. There is a serious problem with vegetables reaching local markets not being safe, because they are contaminated with pesticides or microbes due to poor hygiene and use of polluted water for irrigation, or for post-harvest cleaning of produce. Why should we have different standards for vegetables that are exported? Why shouldn’t vegetables be as safe for Kenyans as for Europeans?’ The problem is, Gema says, that consumers in Kenya are not aware of food safety. For this a public awareness campaign is needed, she believes.

Inclusion should be about workers

But how many farmers are likely to benefit from an improved horticultural sector? ‘We should consider who we are talking about when we talk about inclusion. In the past, many interventions focussed on inclusion of resource-poor farmers. But horticulture does not lend itself to the really small-scale farmers. This business needs investment and skills and knowledge. If you engage with farmers who do not have the resources, you end up with problems. They may consistantly miss the minimum requirements to enter the market.

That does not mean that Gema does not care about inclusion. ‘We should focus on the agricultural workers. We are transitioning from a sector with small-scale production that relies on family labour to medium-scale farms that depend on hired labour.’ Such farms may hire 10 to 20 workers. ‘But aggregated, we are talking about the livelihood of many people. But what are the conditions under which these workers are providing their labour?’

Gema believes issues like child labour and forced labour should be addressed, also on the domestic market. ‘But it is not an area where we can make progress easily. The smallholders or the workers that are employed on medium-scale farms have fewer labour protections compared to large scale plantations where labour standards are emphasized. It will be difficult not only to build awareness and skills but also to find the investment needed to transform conditions.’ Dutch and other European importers have asked Gema for advice on how they can use codes of conduct like BSCI (Business Social Compliance Initiative) with small and medium horticultural producers. Gema: ‘That’s not possible at the moment. We simply don’t have the tools to monitor it.’

Mazao Safi – Clean food

In horticulture, there is a general lack of farmer and sector organisation, compared to for example the tea sector, Gema concludes. ‘We need more cooperation in the sector, and more research, to find ways to organise these issues.’ Inclusion and labour conditions of agricultural workers are systemic issues, according to Gema, as is food safety. Once tackled, however, the whole food system benefits. ‘If we clean up our food system to produce safer and healthier vegetables for the domestic market, the export market benefits as well.’

foto Martha Nalukenge

One way to make a change is by introducing a consumer label in Kenya, Gema hopes. ‘My company Tradecare Africa ran a pilot, introducing the Mazao Safi label on the Nairobi market.’ Products carrying the Mazao Safi label, which means clean food in Swahili, are traceable to a particular origin and produced with local standards for good agricultural practices and access to extension services for farmers. ‘It is less restrictive than organic, but it is safe food.’ Gema believes there is a potential market of 100 tons of fresh fruit and vegetables a day for such a label in Kenya. After running a successful pilot on the label, Gema is convinced of the business case. ‘Right now, I am looking for an investor that is ready to invest in this label, to scale it up as a business.’

In the autumn of 2020, Vice Versa publishes a series of articles on transforming African food systems to provide sufficient and healthy food to the growing population, while at the same time generating income and employment for the increasing number of young people. Our aim is to generate debate on this important topic within the Dutch international cooperation sector, running up to the parliamentary elections in March 2021.
The series is an initiative of Vice Versa in cooperation with Solidaridad, IDH Sustainable trade, Wageningen University & Research and the Food & Business Knowledge Platform and AgriProFocus, merging into the Netherlands Food Partnership this year

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