Organic Farming Potential and Benefits in Kenya

Organic Farming Potential and Benefits in Kenya

Organic farming is an integrated method of farming that strives for sustainable production in agriculture, enhancement of soil fertility and biological diversity while prohibiting, with rare exceptions, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, genetically modified foods and growth hormones.

The key characteristics of organic farming include the following: protecting long-term fertility of soils by maintaining organic matter levels, minimum mechanical operations on soil and encouraging soil biological activity; providing crop nutrients using relatively insoluble nutrients by action of soil micro-organisms; ensuring nitrogen soil self-sufficiency by growing legumes, biological nitrogen fixation and effective recycling of organic materials like manures; and a holistic management of livestock through addressing their natural adaptations, behavioural needs and animal welfare in relation to their nutrition, housing,  health and breeding among others.

The other key characteristics of organic farming include weed, disease and pest control using natural means such as crop rotations, diversity, natural predators and resistant varieties as well as paying attention to the impact of farming on the environment, wildlife and natural habitats. Food that is produced from such farming systems is organic.

Organic farming is made necessary by the fact that the era of “Green Revolution”, which saw the intensification of agricultural production through high yield inputs and fertilizers to meet world food security has resulted in contamination of produce with chemicals injurious to health, negative effects on soil fertility and environmental and habitat pollution. In short, modern conventional farming as opposed to organic farming is based on fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources, meaning it is not sustainable.   

Organic Farming History in Kenya

Organized organic farming appears to have started in Kenya in the 1990s. Kenya Institute of Organic Farming (KIOF), which was established in 1986, trained farmers and provided them extension services on organic farming. These farmers later established the Kenya Organic Farmers Association (KOFA) to help farmers collaborate on organic farming and specifically to organize local and international markets for organic produce for its members. KOFA also provided members with organic farming standards based on the standards of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and the European Union.

In 2005, large scale and commercial farmers involved in organic export together with other stakeholders organized themselves into Kenya Organic Association Network (KOAN) to continue support to the growth of the organic sub-sector.

Potential, Benefits and Rationale for Organic Farming in Kenya

Currently, the organic food produced for the export and domestic markets totals at least five million tonnes annually. There are at least 250,000 consumers of organic produce comprising of local citizens and tourists mainly in Nairobi. The organic food consumers have been identified as such from being regular customers at the organic markets and outlets.

Since most of the current organic farming takes place in Central Kenya, a lot of potential for production exists in other regions such as the Coast, Eastern, Rift Valley, Western, Nyanza and North Eastern.

The quantities of organic production for the various crops are still very small. For example, by 2011, the following were the acreages of different crops and livestock as well as the shares of hectares of total production: Coffee 240 ha (0.3%), crop protein 3 ha (0%), tropical and sub-tropical fruits 1425 ha (0.9%), vegetables 598 ha (0.3%) and organic cereals 1 ha (0%) among others. The share of organic agricultural land is only 0.02 % (4969 ha) of the total agricultural land by 2011. There is, therefore, room for expansion of organic farming practices.  

Organic farming presents an opportunity for poor farming households to increase food and agricultural production and productivity using cheaper organic inputs originating from within the farms. These comprise of compost, livestock manures and crop residues. Since the production of crops from commercial inputs and supplementation of livestock feeds make up between 60-70 per cent of the production costs in agriculture, adoption of organic farming is likely to reduce production costs, increase production surpluses for sales by poor households and support stability in food production by minimizing production changes from input price volatility. Therefore, organic farming can contribute to the implementation of national and county governments’ food and nutrition security policy. It can also provide production sustainability.

Besides, production sustainability, organic farming when practiced properly, can ensure that the soil is kept in its natural state and thus keeps regenerating itself, ensuring continuous nutrient supply and better water holding capacity. Practices used in organic farming such as crop rotation and intercropping can control pests and diseases. The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) has reported decline in the production potential of soils in Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia, which are the bread baskets of Kenya in maize due to continuous use of Diammonium phosphate (DAP) fertilizers.  

Additionally, the fears of the soaring of cancer rates in Kenya is suspected by experts to be arising from the contamination of food products and the environment with harmful chemicals used in agriculture. The rate of death from cancer increased by 6 per cent annually between 2010 and 2014.  This is estimated to double by 2026 as reported in the Daily Nation of September 29, 2015.

The demand for organic food and other products is rising locally and for the export market but the supply is not keeping up with this demand. Higher incomes and forex earnings from sale of organic food can, therefore, be realized by farmers. Some Supermarkets, especially around Nairobi and other parts of the country, are willing to stock organic foods, which are in high demand but there is no supply. Food from organic farming can also contribute to the health of those affected by chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure among others.      

Markets

Markets for organic produce are mainly located in Nairobi and its environs. The export market is available to large scale organic farmers that have linkages with overseas market channels. Some of the farms or companies involved include Kalimoni Greens and Kitchen Soko. These companies export organic food and sell their produce in the weekly farmer market for organic food in Nairobi. There are also two restaurants by the two companies selling organic food downtown in Nairobi.  A supermarket stocking organic food is also serving consumers in Karen. There is also a market for organic food operated by Kitchen Soko in Juja, Ruiru town.

 Opportunities and Challenges   

Opportunities are represented by the high incomes for farmers that can be realized from organic farming. The availability of training by KIOF, KOAN, Egerton University and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology provide farmers and those interested in learning organic farming the best training available locally. In addition, two certification bodies for organic farming operate in Kenya and can guide farmers into organic food production.

Some of the challenges in organic farming include unawareness of farmers of the high demand for organic foods and markets for the products, lack of certification for organic farming standards of some of the farmers involved in organic production, lack of enforcement of organic farming standards by the Ministry of Agriculture or other bodies, lack of inspection of produce quality, and lack of certification of inputs for organic farming.

The inappropriate use of chemicals in the horticultural sub-sector, for example, led to the rejection of Kenya’s horticultural produce in the European Union recently. This shows the importance of certification and standards in tapping the potential of organic farming. The challenge of certification standards and standards for organic inputs very much relate to the challenge of a lack of policy on organic farming. However, elements of policy on organic farming are captured in the food and nutrition security policy and fertilizer and feedstuff policy.      

Way forward for Policy Interventions

First and most important the need for the domestication of organic farming policy in Kenya. This can address the value chain practices ranging from production practices, processing, transportation, storage, marketing and consumption as well as inputs within this niche farming area. Another area requiring urgent attention is the labelling of organic foods and products in supermarkets. This would provide authentication for organic standards to consumers and price justification of the products. An information system to stakeholders – including producers, consumers, capacity building institutions and policymakers – is needed to promote the production, marketing, consumption and regulation of organic farming in Kenya. A lot of benefits would accrue from increased production of organic food. These include food and nutrition security, increased farmer incomes, increased forex earnings, sustainable production, soil health and management and better human health and reduction in environmentally-induced health conditions.

Author: Dr Mathew Muma, Senior Policy Analyst, Productive Sector Department  

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