Kenya horticulture exporters embrace traceability system to save produce from interceptions

Kenya horticulture exporters embrace traceability system to save produce from interceptions

Over 5000 Kenyan exporters of fruits and vegetables, majority of them smallholder farmers, have embraced a cloud-based system that tracks each farmers’ farming activity fresh from farm to folk ensuring they are personally accountable to consumers while reducing cases of rejections at the markets.

Dubbed the National Horticulture Traceability System, the innovation seeks to strengthen compliance of Kenya’s horticulture produce, and is the latest attempt by the country to restore market confidence in international markets that are increasingly becoming sensitive about how food is produced.

The system was inspired by an avalanche of interceptions and cancellation of Kenyan produce, especially French beans and peas that were found to have high residues of chemicals and regulated pests.

With the country failing to heed numerous warnings from the European Union, where it exports 80 per cent of horticulture, on the worrying number of pesticide maximum residue levels which saw unprecedented number of cancellations and interceptions, Kenya was slapped with a 10 per cent mandatory inspection order for beans and peas at all entry points.

“That was one of the most damaging moments of the horticulture industry. 10 per cent mandatory inspection is a very high percentage because ordinarily it is one percent. It means virtually all the fresh produce we were exporting had to be inspected. It had such a huge cost implication because our exporters were forced to pay for these inspections,” said Mrs. Jane Ngige the Kenya Horticulture Council CEO.

As a result in that year alone, 50 per cent of all small scale farmers lost their jobs and source of livelihoods with the industry losing Sh. 3.5 billion, approximately 29 million Euros, in pesticides testing costs. Exports dipped by 60 per cent that year alone.

The Traceability System has now become the industry’s saving grace. It contains three aspects. A mobile application that captures farmers’ details and farm operations, a web reporting portal that allows for easier exchange of information among industry players among them the regulatory bodies and a barcode with a Quick Reference, QR, Code printing module that stores farmers’ information. The system that has been custom made for Kenyan horticulture exporters can accommodate one million farmers.

Once a farmer delivers their produce at a point of collection, their details and those of their farms, including name, identification number, location, inputs used and information on planting, cultivation and harvesting of their produce are keyed in. The system then records details of the produce delivered including the state at the time of delivery, the number plate of the vehicle delivering the produce, time and date of delivery. This generated a tag with a unique code that is embedded on each produce for purposes of traceability. These details are automatically updated on the web portal where they are stored and can be retrieved in case a problem arises.

Through its GPS coordinates the system is able to identify, with surgical precision, the exact location of each farmer’s produce and in case of a problem in the market, identify the exact problem and the farmer responsible. This reduces a blanket blame on exporters and allows for immediate remedial action.

The system has also allowed agronomists shorten the time, and workload in moving around farms. Before they would move with piles of papers, a daunting task considering an agronomist would have to spend on average two hours on each farm. Now they take on average 20 minutes, a development that has seen them more than triple the number of farms they cover in a day while greatly improving their accuracy in identifying problems with any produce when they arise.

Patrick Kirimi a French beans smallholder farmer who has been growing for export for over ten years understands more than anyone else the value of the traceability innovation. He was amog those heavily affected by the 2013 interceptions. “We were told by agronomists about the new strict requirements by the export markets on use of chemicals. Then one day we were told our produce had been cancelled and that we were not going to get any money,” he recalled. He had already harvested 400 kgs and was looking forward to 1000 Euros as earnings for that season. “It was devastating. It is from this business that I used to feed my family and educate my children It then became very difficult for exporters to take produce from us,” he added.

But his leap of faith paid off. Remaining in the business and selling to the local market, which was buying the produce at half the price he used to earn in exports, he would later be introduced to the traceability system through a farmer group he belongs to. “It was such an exciting experience. I immediately warmed up to it especially after learning that this time round each individual farmer was responsible for what they grew, how they grew it and would be held liable individually in case the produce was bad. It also means I can easily track my produce as it grows to ensure it meets international standards,” he said.

Janet Mugambi, another French beans farmer in Timau area at the Kenyan highlands agrees. “It was a very painful experience especially when you would get a blanket punishment as farmers for the mistake of a few, despite individually having put the best practices in ensuring you produce high quality produce. We are glad of the new technology for giving restoring hope to millions of us. Nowadays the quality of produce has really improved and the system has also allowed us to track how we are doing in terms of quantity, quality and frequency of production. Again it is very simple to use,” she said.

With the emergence of new pests and diseases occasioned by climate change and tightening of regulations by export markets, industry players now insist that innovations like the National Horticulture Traceability System will come in handy especially in developing countries that do not have superior technologies like greenhouses to grow their produce in controlled environments that tame pests and diseases spread.

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