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This calls for a unified approach that ‘leaves no one behind’ including farmers, researchers, development partners, cooperatives e.t.c

Farming is the most important occupation as has been said in countless forums. While you consult a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher once in a while, you make a date with the farmer at least thrice a day. The appointment with the farmer sustains life. Yet for many farmers, the venture hardly provides a decent income. They farm for sustenance and it is often a back-breaking, sweaty and punishing affair. Growing up, I recall the agonising coffee-picking routine then the long walk ferrying the cherries to the factory. We hated coffee seasons and aspired to move to the city.

A few decades later, as a country, we haven’t made farming attractive or profitable enough. Despite the huge potential in crops, livestock, and fisheries we have let down generations of farmers. This should not always be the case. We can make farming ‘cool’ and worthwhile activity. And indeed, over the last few years, we have had a number of youthful farmers making a decent living, which demonstrates that transforming agriculture is not rocket science or an expensive undertaking.

It can be done, with the right attitude, sustained approach, government and private sector partnerships, and enough resources. We need not complain of a lack of jobs when numerous opportunities to do business are staring at us in the agriculture sector.  

And so last week, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya, his four PSs and over 400 stakeholders including farmers and private sector leaders converged at Safari Park Hotel for the first National Agriculture Summit. Sitting through the two-day forum, I marveled at the wealth of knowledge, data and experience at our disposal. If only it could be put into deliberate and targeted action, Kenya could be food-sufficient in a few years and the jobless corner would be empty. How can you explain the fact that Kenya has some 8.6 million farmers but only about 385,000 formal jobs are in the agriculture sector? There should be more decent jobs.

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Digitised farming

And this is not the jembe-carrying young man or woman with the panga. We can create highly mechanised and digitised farming job opportunities across the value chain, from the farm to the dining table. It is unacceptable that 65 per cent of our exports are agricultural produce sold as raw materials. We must make deliberate efforts to encourage value-addition and constantly seek to export our produce as finished products. But how do we go about this?

Brilliant proposals were made at the summit. Firstly, we must embrace self-regulation, global standards and avoid cutting corners in the ways we farm. All farmers must be skilled in their specific fields. For instance, ignorance on which type of fertiliser to apply at which stage of growing the crop should not be an excuse for any farmer. This way, our produce will be acceptable anywhere. This calls for integrity among all farmers.

The government should constantly engage private sector players to bring down the cost of inputs. This entails providing quality seeds and right fertiliser for each soil type, which will in turn help maximise production per acreage. The government should get out of trading and only facilitate farming through the construction of an effective infrastructure. For instance, the government should leave running of sugar millers to private sector players. This will enhance efficiency and profitability in the sector. Secondly, extension services should be stepped up across the country. And because hiring so many extension services officers could be costly, we can employ technology and offer area-specific information through digital platforms.

How about creating country-specific online information hubs? This would attract the youth into agriculture and address the challenge that the average age of a Kenyan farmer is 59 years. We need more young people in farming to feed the growing population.

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We should also move away from traditional farming methods and further fragmentation of agricultural activities. Accelerated convergence would make farming more profitable and globally acceptable. Agriculture, besides being the bedrock of our economy and contributed about 35 per cent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) a few years ago, it had dipped to 26 per cent. This calls for a unified approach that ‘leaves no one behind’ including farmers, researchers, development partners, cooperatives, financiers, government officials, private sector players, and the youth. Participants also called on the government to up budgetary allocation to agriculture from the current 3 percent and move towards the 10 percent recognised as part of the Maputo Declaration signed in 2003 among African nations.

Fisheries PS Micheni Ntiba demonstrated how the blue economy could create 10 million jobs and challenged investors to put their money in it. He explained how wealth could be created through shipping, oil and gas, mining, sea farming, tourism, water sports, film making, bio-prospecting and coastal agriculture.

As the summit came to a close, the government pledged Sh440 billion over the next five years to boost farming as the conveners came up a ten-point roadmap, dubbed the Safari Park Declaration. This is the threshold we will use to hold the government, newly formed Agriculture Sector Network (ASNET) and leaders from Kepsa, including Lee Karuri, Bimal Kantaria and Chris Wilson to account in the next ten years. It can be done.

- The writer is a Revise Editor at The Standard. [email protected]

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