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Making markets work for farmers

26 May 2016

Making markets work for farmers

Blog by Geoffrey Nyamota, Head of Market Engagement at Farm Africa

"At Farm Africa, our main aim is to make sure that the farmers we work with become financially secure. As Head of Market Engagement, my job is to help farmers grow crops with a particular market in mind, so that they know exactly what will get them the best income.

I grew up in rural Kenya, where my parents were smallholder farmers. My parents used to grow crops and look for markets where they could sell them – but the buyers always complained that they had the wrong products, and that they were of a poor quality.

This made it difficult for them to earn sufficient income to support my education. They couldn’t afford to pay for me to go to high school or university, but in the spirit of ‘Harambee’, where members of the community come together to raise funds to support a common goal, they were able to raise enough money for me to study.

As a result of this, I decided that I was going to study agriculture so that I could help smallholder farmers access lucrative markets for their produce. I wanted to return to the society where I was born to make sure that my parents, and the whole community, were able to grow produce that there was an established and profitable market for.

But while this sounds like a simple solution, it can be very difficult for smallholder farmers to access high value markets. As smallholders generally only farm around two acres or less, they cannot produce the large volumes that big buyers need. And most farmers live in small villages, where the roads are impassable and transportation is difficult, which means they are forced to sell at low prices at their farm gate. Furthermore, the cost of inputs (fertilizers and seeds) bought individually becomes too expensive for smallholders to afford.

That’s why organisations like Farm Africa are needed. We support farmers to form cooperatives, and help them to forge links with lucrative buyers.

Working in cooperatives is vital for smallholders. Not only can farmers buy fertiliser and seeds together, but they can also sell collectively. It’s much more cost-effective for corporate traders and buyers to buy in bulk, so by working together smallholders have much greater bargaining power and can find a price that suits them.

As Head of Market Engagement at Farm Africa, I work backwards, talking to reliable private sector players who are interested in buying produce from smallholders, and then making sure farmers produce harvests tailored to these requirements. Farm Africa also works with financial institutions, so that farmers can access the loans they need to invest in their businesses.

Farm Africa recently brokered an agreement between Kenya’s largest exporter of fresh produce, Vegpro Group, and cooperatives of young farmers from western Kenya. Exporters like Vegpro Group face persistent challenges in trying to source large volumes of high quality fresh produce – they need energetic and literate farmers who are able to pick up new techniques quickly.

These young farmers could do just that. Farm Africa organised training sessions for the group, setting up demonstration plots to showcase best practices. Just 60 days after planting, farmers were already selling their French beans to Vegpro Group. This market-based approach meant that the young farmers could earn sustainable incomes, and start to think like businessmen and women – setting them up for long careers in commercial agriculture.

Partnerships such as this show just how profitable the right market linkages can be for farmers. Because when it comes to markets, knowledge really is power – when smallholders know exactly what to grow and when, their incomes rise and they can invest in their family’s future."