Who are Africa’s saviours?

Africa’s saviours are not on the benches of parliaments. They’re working in the fields, factories, shops and every other place where goods and services are produced, processed and sold. They labour on their own or in teams working together from top management down to those individuals carrying out the most menial jobs in firms, all with a single objective, to serve consumers.

In Kenya, people like Peter Randa, Abraham Mbugi and Gilbert Kibiti display above-average entrepreneurial talent and are making a significant difference in their respective fields.

Peter Randa is a scientist with Semenis (a division of Monsanto), based in Nairobi. He manages horticulture technology development in sixteen East and Central African countries. His current passion is to make Kenya a foremost African producer of tomatoes, a task he carries out with meticulous care. Peter explained the technical aspects of his tomato project to the Enterprise Africa! team, when he and his colleague Abraham Mbugi conducted them on a fact-finding mission to parts of the Mount Kenya and Rift Valley regions of Kenya. The purpose of the mission was to view the activities of smallholder farmers and their farm supply and sales outlets.

It’s no easy task to select the right type of farm product to substantially change agriculture in a country or region of a continent. The first criterion is consumer demand. Randa homed in on tomatoes – apparently in Kenya a meal is not a meal unless tomatoes feature in it somewhere. Then he checked all the varieties his company had developed, chose those that looked most promising, and carried out trials in different areas of the country, pitting his company’s varieties against the best selling ones from rival producers. His choice was a feminine-named tomato called Anna F1, which has turned out to be his pride and joy.

Peter then had to convince all and sundry of the benefits of growing, buying and eating “his” tomato. Farmers had to be shown the best and cheapest way to erect the 240 square metre tunnels in which to produce the fruit and shield it from the sun and rain, where they could find the best material suppliers, how to set up irrigation systems and how to conserve water for irrigating. The farmers had to be convinced that a crop produced in those tunnels would be equal to that on a conventional one-acre plot, require a fraction of the quantity of fertiliser, use one-tenth the amount of water, require a fraction of the labour, and continue producing tomatoes for at least ten months, in and out of season. And, most important of all, that it was worth paying his company more for Anna F1 hybrid seed than a lower price for conventional seed.

One hundred farmers were selected, supplied with all the inputs, and shown exactly how to plant and tend the new tomato variety. Then show days were held, with dignitaries and up to 2,000 people present, to demonstrate the growing crops and for housewives to evaluate and taste the tomato.

This is how a seed company expert, utilising all his knowledge and skill, launches a new product. Peter Randa is well on his way to achieving his objectives: firstly, to provide Kenya’s smallholder farmers with a product that entails reduced risk, less labour, lower input costs, and higher profit; secondly, to provide Kenyan housewives with a continuous supply of high-quality tomatoes at reasonable prices; and thirdly, to make Kenya a tomato exporter instead of an importer.

Company scientists can produce and select the most appropriate products for a specific purpose but supply chains have to be in place to get the inputs and information out to the farmers. Monsanto sales executive, Abraham Mbugi, works closely with Peter Randa to ensure that farmers get the seeds and product information they need to make informed choices and produce crops successfully. He is responsible for selling the full range of products and is a well-known figure in farming circles across the length and breadth of the crop farming regions of Kenya. Farm supply wholesale and retail outlets in the various regions are among Abraham’s most important customers and he is in constant contact with them.

Gilbert Kibiti is the Managing Director of Farmers Centre Limited in Meru. The company is the largest farm supply wholesaler and retailer in the region. Farmers Centre trucks deliver supplies of seeds, fertilisers, chemicals, spraying equipment and other supplies from a wide range of suppliers to retailers in towns and villages within a 70 kilometre radius of Meru. According to Gilbert the farmers in the Mount Kenya region are more progressive and prepared to try new technology as it becomes available. About 70 per cent of his maize seed customers buy hybrid seed, while 75 per cent buy hybrid vegetable seeds, especially cabbage seed. He organised a tunnel demonstration with Peter Randa, which was attended by more than 1,000 people. According to Gilbert, it requires effort to persuade farmers that buying 2½ grams of tomato seed for 750 Kenyan shillings to plant 240 square metres of tomatoes is a better investment than paying 900 Kenyan shillings for 100 grams to plant one acre of tomatoes. A demonstration is the only way to convince farmers that they will get the same quantity of tomatoes, of better quality, and will make more money.

Products demanded by farmers have changed significantly during the 10 years Gilbert has been in business. Initially, 75 per cent of the business related to coffee growing. Now he supplies horticulture, maize, bean, coffee, potato and dairy farmers, with horticulture and coffee being the most important. One of the most serious problems facing Farmers Centre customers is the price of fertiliser, which has trebled in one year, putting it out of reach of small farmers.

People in the supply chain, who bring new technologies, information and supplies to farmers, play a crucial role in improving farmers’ crop yields, reducing rural poverty, and reducing hunger. These people and their farming clients are among the true saviours of Africa.

Peter Randa (Semenis - a division of Monsanto) and Eustace Davie (FMF) in Kenya

Author: Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation. He recently visited Kenya as a member of the Enterprise Africa! www.enterprise-africa.org project team, which is documenting enterprise-based solutions to poverty in Africa. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

FMF Policy Bulletin / 03 November 2009 - Policy Bulletin / 01 December 2009
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