Organic farming tries to take root in Kenya

Kenyan farmers want to tap into the premium world market of organics, but they face regulatory obstacles.

By , Special to The ChristianScience Monitor

Here in the heavily farmed foothills south of Mt. Kenya, the trees are bright green and most of the soil a rusty red. But on the three-quarters of an acre where he grows green beans, Joseph Wakane's land is a deep chocolate brown - a sign of health he attributes to the chemical-free, organic farming techniques he has adopted.

"Digging, making trenches, applying compost, mixing it with the soil: It's hard work for me to do on my own, so I must hire labor from other people," he explains.

Despite the labor intensiveness, advantages include better soil fertility, less dependence on costly imported chemicals, and ultimately, premium prices on the export market.

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Mr. Wakane is one of a small but growing number of African farmers trying to tap into the $20 billion annual world market in premium organic foods. Africa trails world production - and Kenya, a major food exporter, trails the continent - in organics. It's something Wakane and others are trying to change.

"The Ministry of Agriculture has not come up with a policy that really puts an emphasis on organic farming. It's the NGOs and farmers who are taking the initiative to go organic," says Kithinji Gitaari Boore, field manager for the Association for Better Land Husbandry (ABLH), a nonprofit group that works with farmers here.

According to official statistics gathered by Germany's Foundation for Ecology and Agriculture, organic farms account for 2 percent of Europe's farmland, 0.22 percent in the US, and less than 3/1000ths of 1 percent in Africa.

While far more African land is probably being farmed without chemical inputs, many governments don't keep track, and few countries have systems for granting official organic certification. Without certification, foods cannot be marketed or sold as premium organic products.

Uganda leads the way on the continent, producing about 10 percent of the world's organically grown cotton. Consumers in the West can buy organic cocoa from Ivory Coast, organic coffee from Ethiopia, pineapples from Ghana, and organic cashews from Mozambique.

Uganda has 7,000 farmers registered as organic producers and Tanzania has 4,000. Neighboring Kenya has none.

Even for the converts, many obstacles remain before they can gain access to the lucrative overseas market for organic food.

"Most of the farms here are small-scale farms, and they have to come out with big amounts, tons and tons of crops, to be able to export economically," says Mr. Boore. "A single farmer trying to work organically is not going to get any benefit."

Gladys Kanegeni appreciates saving money on fertilizers, enjoys eating food that is chemical-free, and is pleased with the yields of tomatoes, okra, peppers, and bananas she gets from organic techniques. She just wishes her crops would fetch more money.

"When I take the products to the local market, the prices offered are just like the ones not grown through organic farming," she says. "We do a lot of work in growing them, so sometimes we feel discouraged because there's no premium for the work done."

Anotherchallenge for farmersis that exporters demand consistent quality and continuous supply, requiring coordinated planting times. Transport systems are often poor and the farmers themselves have little financial cushion to hire extra labor or to cope with a mediocre harvest.

ABLH is trying to help farmers by grouping them into production units, assisting with marketing, and creating a local organic certification body. Until they are certified as organic producers, the farmers working with ABLH must sell their premium produce at nonpremium prices.

"The problem is that that we don't have a ready market for organic produce," adds John Kibia, a green-bean producer. "Inthe future, maybe there will be a very big market for organically grown products, and maybe when that time comes, I'll be a beneficiary. One day I'll benefit from it."

Not everyone agrees that organic farming is right for the continent most frequently beset by food shortages and famine.

The biotechnology industry criticizes organic food as a rich person's luxury and is touting increased yields from crops that are genetically modified to thrive in African conditions.

While organic farming techniques generally yield about 30 percent less food per acre in developed countries, studieshave shown the reverse in the Third World. Overworked land benefits when organic techniques help return nutrients to the soil.

GerogeAcquaah, chairman of the agriculture department at Langston University in Oklahoma, acknowledges that agricultural chemicals are expensive and can harm the environment. But he adds that it's not easy for many small-scale farmers to obtain enough livestock to produce the amount of manure organic farming requires, nor is it a simple task to teach them the techniques.

"If you apply organic principles and you take care of the soil in the proper way, you can very much increase your yield," says Thomas Cierpka, executive director of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements. "This is the most sustainable way, not only for the export market but also for food security."

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