Challenges farmers face as Highlighted by an Agronomist

Challenges farmers face as Highlighted by an Agronomist

Peter Kariuki is an agronomist based in Nairobi with vast experience spanning to a decade of interacting with farmers and the horticulture industry at large. He shares with Hortfresh Journal on the challenges farmers face and possible ways forward for the sector.

| Who is Peter Kariuki?
Thanks, I am a freelance agronomist with bachelor’s degree in Horticulture from Karatina University which I started with diploma at the same institution. Before switching to Horticulture I had done diploma in procurement, purchase and supplies which I only practiced for less than a year. I worked as a procurement officer at a firm I don’t want to mention. I was raised in a farming family hence developed interest in farming at early age and so, whereas I was a professional procurement officer who was already in employment my passion was in farming; have you ever worked at a place where you earn good money but your heart desires something else?
| For how long have you been in the industry?
I have been offering consultancy services for the last six years, but in terms of involvement in the horticulture industry, I have been here for ten years, doing research, initially I was doing variety testing, then testing pesticides, fungicides. Currently I am doing a trial for a fungicide against tomatoes’ blight (early and late).
I mostly deal with horticultural products like tomatoes, capsicum, strawberries, vegetables, that linage you know, but that doesn’t limit me because I have experience working with other crops like maize, sorghum among others. In short, I am not limited to horticulture even though I am basically 100 percent in horticulture since that is where my passion is.
|So where do you operate and who are some of your clients?
Currently I work for Hortiserve East Africa as an agronomist, as well as a person in charge of trials, when it comes to pesticide. But the agronomic part of it I do as a side hustle. I have registered a company called Crop Echos Consultancy Ltd where all my agronomic side hustles fall under.
As I mentioned earlier, practicing agronomy on freelance basis has allowed me to get clients from across the country. Some of my clients come from Subukia, Central French beans growing group which has over 300 farmers under contract farming. Others are from, Murang’a, Nairobi, Kiambu, Chogoria, Tharaka Nithi, Kisaju, Kajiado, Meru and Kiawara in Nyeri.

|What are your day today main issues as an agronomist that you encounter with farmers?
My weekly diary is always full. I train farmers basically on crop production, soil control and soil management. I help farmers find ways to maximize crop production from a given acreage of soil. I perform experiments to determine and then maximize plant nutrients and soil health.
|Briefly share on some of the challenges farmers face and possible ways forward?
Farmers face myriad of challenges from pests and diseases, extension services, farming inputs, soil nutrient deterioration to price fluctuations.
Pests, diseases and post-harvest losses
Pests and diseases have continued to cause a lot of losses to farmers. This is worsened by farmers lack of information on how to control these diseases. Another challenge I come across is post-harvest losses, caused by poor handling and storage facilities. Many farmers in Kenya have lost their produce to pests, diseases and due to lack of proper handling of crop especially during storage. Extension services can be instrumental in helping reducing pre and post-harvest losses.
Extension services
The Kenyan government through its agricultural extension officers have not been doing active work in helping farmers and giving them the necessary education needed to improve their crop yields. There is limited access to extension services in most parts of the country with the National extension staff: farmer ratio standing at 1: 1,500. The few number of officers serve very wide areas. This situation has hindered most farmers from keeping pace with changing technological advances. In the farming sector extension service plays a key role in disseminating knowledge, technologies and agricultural information, and in linking farmers with other actors in the economy.
The extension service is one of the critical change required in transforming subsistence farming to a modern and commercial agriculture, to promote household food security, improve income and reduce poverty. There is need for recruitment of more extension staff and the involvement of NGO’s to increase access of extension services to farmers since education and access to information are crucial.
However, in a way the number of extension services is increasing. Agrovets are popping up in most rural villages and they are being trained to offer extension services, also internet and mobile phone technology services in Kenya are very advanced.
Farming inputs
Most farmers lack information on the right type of farm inputs to use and the appropriate time of application. The cost of key inputs such as seed, pesticides, fertilizer is high for resource-poor farmers. Most farmers therefore do not use them. This greatly reduces the yield that the farmers get.
Soil nutrient deterioration
The rising population density has contributed to the subdivision of land to uneconomically small units. In addition, the reduction of fallow periods and continuous cultivation have led to rapid depletion of soil nutrients, declining yields and environmental degradation. Farmers need information on the right farming practices aimed and restoring the soil nutrient which can be provided by extension and advisory services.
Soil health is critical for long term sustainable farming and increased yields. Soil mapping at county level, with proper fertilizer blending is crucial. Soil types in Kenya are very variable and fertilizers that are suitable in one region can be detrimental in another. Some agricultural zones are very acidic due to years of over-use of fertilizer; and liming can more than triple yields in these areas.
Access to clean seed and crop selection

Seed is among the most important production resources that greatly influence productivity. The challenge facing many farmers is they are unable to access clean seeds. Variety selection is also key unfortunately, most small holder farmers rely on an informal seed system for planting most agricultural commodities, and often continue to recycle seeds, resulting in persistent low yields. There is need to put in place seed production and delivery systems that encourage wider use of quality seed.
Price fluctuations
The unstable prices of agricultural commodities at the local and international markets have greatly discouraged farmers. When setting prices for every agricultural commodity, one has to look at the cost of production from hiring the land like in most cases, ploughing, cost of seeds, labour, cost of farming equipment, machineries to pesticides among others; the list is long. When farmers sell their produce at a price that cannot return the cost of production, they incur big losses.
The rate of production also determines prices at the market. When a specific produce does well in the market, many farmers normally rush to produce the same, which makes its production flood the market and because most of it is fresh produce, may not stay for long without getting spoilt leaving the farmers with only one option; sell at a throw away price.

| Do farmers accept and embrace technology?
While the country has a well-developed agricultural research system, the use of modern science and technology in agricultural production is still limited. Inadequate research–extension–farmer linkages to facilitate demand-driven research and increased use of improved technologies continue to constrain efforts to increase agricultural productivity as farmers continue to use outdated and ineffective technologies. This brings the need of extension services that can link research and the farmers.
|Where do you see farming in coming years and what is your advice to farmers?
The stakeholders (government, NGO’s, development partners and farmers) should invest heavily in the farming/agricultural sector since it is the only field that feeds everybody. During the wake of Covid-19 pandemic, when companies were sending employees to compulsory leave or offering pay cuts, this is the only industry that provided living alternative.

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