Why an efficient rural distribution network is essential to attaining food security

As farmers gear up for planting, several newspaper reports indicate that the perennial challenge of delayed farm inputs is once again playing out in different parts of the country.

To increase agricultural productivity for smallholders, it is important that high-quality farm inputs are delivered to farmers on time and within walking distances of their homes.

Based on One Acre Fund’s experience of serving more than 400,000 smallholder farmers in Kenya, an efficient rural distribution network is one of the best ways to do this.

More than 70 per cent of rural Kenyan households rely on smallholder farming for their food security. Most households rely on rain-fed agriculture, meaning they must get their inputs on time to start planting at the onset of the rains.

Research has shown that when farmers plant on time, at the start of the rains, their crops perform better even when it rains less than normal.

This is because the young plants have time to establish a deeper root system and tap other water under the surface of the soil when it is dry.

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This is increasingly important due to climate change. As weather patterns change, most regions in East Africa are receiving less rainfall, according to FAO data.

An efficient rural distribution network would get farmers their inputs on time and help them take advantage of the entire rainy season.

Kenya’s poor rural distribution network has led to a thriving industry for brokers.

Currently, most grain silos and inputs storage facilities are located in town centres, far from farmers.

At planting time, few farmers can afford the high cost of transportation and time commitment needed to purchase inputs directly, and must deal instead with brokers.

Bypass brokers

And because there isn’t enough competition in rural markets, farmers end up paying higher prices than they would if more sellers existed.

However, if county governments partnered with private sector and development organisations and set up grain and farm input silos and storage facilities in strategic locations such as trading centres in rural areas, where smallholder farmers are concentrated, farmers could bypass brokers and middlemen.

Farmers could readily access high quality inputs at reduced costs and also be able to sell their produce at much better prices.

To stimulate the growth of the rural economy, all stakeholders including private sector, national and county governments, donor agencies and communities need to work together.

An efficient rural distribution network makes it easier for all these groups to more easily access and exchange goods and services.

To its credit, the national government is off to a strong start. By investing in the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), goods are now getting to Nairobi much faster and at a much cheaper cost.

Agricultural products

The next step is ensuring the goods move efficiently into rural areas, for example, streamlining the clearance process. This will reduce storage charges and further allow rural farmers to get goods/inputs faster and at a cheaper rate.

In rural settings, it would greatly benefit county governments to partner and invest in developing feeder roads that encourage the cross-county transport of inputs or finished agricultural products.

For example, if Siaya is dependent on Kakamega to supply sugar, both counties would benefit from better feeder roads that would allow for the flow of goods and capital.

Finally, smallholder farmers are not fully informed on where they can access the right inputs.

There is a role for extension services to play in making sure that small scale farmers are well informed about what type of input works best for their crops and soil types.

Extension service providers, whether public or private, should have information on availability of inputs in the geographic areas that they cover.

In order to support our smallholder farmers who are the bedrock of Kenya’s food security, we must invest in efficient rural distribution networks across the country.

Reducing the cost of inputs and making them available in time for the rains will increase the profitability of small farmers thanks to a reduction in their cost of production, and an increase in their harvests.

Mr Ohaga is the Africa communications manager for One Acre Fund, which provides agricultural services to more than 750,000 smallholder farmers in Eastern and Southern Africa.

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One Acre Fund