Kenya's young people have often been advised to venture into agriculture as a form of self-employment. Many of them have tried this when faced by extreme joblessness, or especially when they have lost jobs and had some savings.

In most cases, the results have been dismal.

The number of young people who have sworn not to touch anything related to agriculture after the first attempt keeps also increasing. From my analysis, the problem is mostly business-related, and therein lies the solution.

The curse of small scale farming

While Kenya is largely an agriculture-based economy, there is a big discrepancy between the profitable agriculture and the subsistence farming that is done around the country.

Small scale farming accounts for 70% of all agriculture in Kenya. The most successful of this small-scale farming is the one that is organized about Co-operative movements such as in coffee farming, contract farming where farmers are contracted by a buyer so they farm with the market in mind, and the one that involves an organized industry such as tea farming.

The number of young people who have sworn not to touch anything related to agriculture after the first attempt keeps also increasing. From my analysis, the problem is mostly business-related, and therein lies the solution.

Most of the people who farm on less than one acre find it hard to make money from their ventures. The cost of production is high due to the lack of economies of scale, and many end up operating at a loss. With the high cost of agricultural production, Kenyan farmers face competition from the neighboring countries. Be it in mushrooms from Rwanda, milk from Uganda or even eggs from South Africa, Kenyan farmers seem helpless at the hands of imported goods. Even the sugar industry is unable to compete with sugar imported from the COMESA region. This means that small scale farmers cannot compete.

The business opportunity

Kenyans spend 55% of their disposable income on food. Nigerians beat them at 60%, while in comparison, Americans spend only 10% of their income on food. This means that either food is too expensive in Kenya, or Kenyans are so poor that they only work for basic needs. While the latter could have some truth, the fact that food is expensive in Kenya remains. This is why farmers face stiff competition from neighboring countries.

How then would we bring the cost of production down and increase competitiveness?

There are several factors involved.

First, the cost of farm inputs is very high. There needs to be a way to bring these down. Farmers are heavily taxed in terms of farm inputs and other commodities such as animal feeds. This requires government intervention.

Second, there is a need for a good distribution system that will ensure that farm products get to the market in time. A major challenge faced is the existence of middlemen who exploit farmers and make a killing while the farmer is killed. The efficient distribution system is the area where people like Twiga Foods are disrupting.

Third, there needs to be more consolidation of lands to attain some economies of scale. As one agricultural expert Sam Mugu puts it, one needs at least five acres of land for farming to make sense commercially. This is difficult to achieve bearing in mind that the most productive land has already been overly fragmented.

The fourth thing is the use of scientific farming methods, as opposed to farming by intuition. Most people who farm tend to employ unskilled people to do the work, and this does not work out well. One needs to find the right skills that are needed to make the venture profitable.

Once the above are taken care of, farming will start to become viable again.

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