A pilot project in Sabasaba is breaking ground that could eventually reposition more than 400,000 smallholder banana farmers in Kenya, currently tied to highly volatile banana prices and often meager returns, by tripling output and opening wider and more secure markets.
With 1.7 per cent of Kenya’s total arable land planted to bananas, the global market for the crop is some $ 5 billion a year. But for many Kenyan farmers, facing payment by eyeball estimates instead of by weight, as well as irregular and flimsy market structures, the crop can still earn very little, as they struggle to get a valuable crop to the right outlets.
In an effort to now create a model that can reposition banana smallholders, the Sabasaba projects has put in place a combined market structure and training ground for farmers at a cost of Sh1.2 Million loaned by Equity Bank. The 200 farmers who have joined the Sabasaba Agribusiness Centre have received tissue culture bananas from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and extensive training by NGO Africa Harvest, on tending their banana farms for maximum output.
“The market has made it easier for us to access financial help from financial institutions, unlike approaching it as individual farmers, where banks are skeptical. Besides we have enough collateral to help us secure loans,” said Joseph Wanyoike, farmer and chairman of the agribusiness cooperative society.
Technoserve, another NGO, has been involved in the roll out of the project to assist the farmers with a ready market through wholesale and retail buyers from the urban market. The first steps in this were to move to payments by weight, and the grading of bananas, which are now divided into Grade 1. sold for Sh12 per kilo, and Grade II, for Sh10 per kilo.
“We are excited to see the determination of these farmers who now consider bananas as a cash crop just as coffee and tea. They received the tissue culture technology from Africa Harvest, managed their crop well, and now they are ready for high end buyers,” said Mr. Stephen Njukia, Senior Program officer AGRA.
The farmers association is also buying in extra bananas from other growers at Sh9 per kilo, in that it cannot now meet demand.
Under the new market arrangement, buyers place orders beforehand and set the day for collection of the bananas. The bananas are weighed, and get records of the amount of bananas they have delivered, and the amount they will be paid, which is then credited to their bank accounts.
James Muiruri a farmer, who has depended on farming for the last 20 years, hails the initiative as having encouraged him to reconsider his earlier thoughts of quitting the poorly performing banana farming sector. Before, a banana bunch would earn him Sh50 to Sh100, but the same bunch measured in kilos is now earning him Sh450.
“I have never seen anything like it, when they told me it could happen and encouraged me to join the banana association, I laughed at the idea. It sounded like a con game,” says Muiruri who after investing Sh2000 as the registration fee to join the association has bought a tank worth Sh25,000 to increase water supply in his banana farm and a chaff cutter to help him feed his cows.
Another farmer, Rebecca Wairimu who is also the group’s treasurer, has introduced other projects from the proceeds of the banana project. “I am among the 60 per cent of women who are part of this association. Most of the women here who are widows and bread winners have gotten renewed hope after the initiative. I personally have piped water to tend to my farm,” says Mrs. Wairimu, whose quarter of an acre has earned her Sh35,000 since September. Farmers in the association have sold 7 tonnes of bananas since the agribusiness centre was created in September this year.
Both AGRA and Africa Harvest have injected a sizeable amount of their budget into training the members of the association on marketing opportunities, book keeping and group management, training four of its members intensively who now run weekly training sessions in the agribusiness centre for the other farmers. The NGOs also organise frequent consultative meetings with the farmers to address upcoming issues, and have a full time intern at the centre setting up the record keeping so that the organizations can exit at the end of this month and leave the farmers to manage the project on their own.
“Its not easy trying to bring the farmers together to sit for hours, leave their commitments and listen to one person, but it’s the benefits that translate from the training that have kept them in these trainings. The enthusiasm they display through asking questions is a tell tale sign that they value it,” said Mr. Samuel Karanja, a member who has been trained to train the farmers.
The association has also started an innovative value addition project to maximize market opportunities, with the farmers’ association now processing tomato jam, banana jam and banana flour, which they mill in a local posho mills and then sell to locals. The banana flour, which is ideal for making ugali and chapatti, is mixed in a ratio of one to one with conventional flour. The group sold 200 kilograms of the flour in October, inspiring them to now move into large scale processing.
“We would want to have our products stocked in supermarkets in two years. The enthusiasm of the farmers tells me it can be done,” said Mr. Wanyoike.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter