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Farmer education transforming Kenya'a tea sector

By Egadwa Mudoga | August 6th 2015

Creating a sustainable yet profitable agricultural sector in Kenya has been one of the major challenges facing the country for decades. More advanced economies with much less fertile lands than Kenya have managed to feed their vast economies, and export the surplus, by investing in specialised training and education for their farmers.

Since the post-independence years up to the late 90s, providing extension services or training for small-scale tea farmers had been the purview of the Ministry of Agriculture, through the then Kenya Tea Development Authority. The ministry seconded extension staff to the Authority to carry out training of tea farmers on husbandry practices.

The number of staff seconded was small compared to the growing number of farmers involved in tea farming, resulting in ineffective training programmes. Faced with few training opportunities, lack of exposure and reliance on untested yet common traditional farming methods, most farmers practices their trade in a trial-and-error manner, resulting in unsustainable, poor quality yields.

The Kenya tea sector – which has since grown to be the leading global supplier of tea – has painstakingly been built on the efforts of smallholder tea farmers under the guidance of the country's largest private tea producing and marketing Agency – Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA).

In the early 2000s, right after privatisation and faced with low farm productivity and green leaf volumes, KTDA (now the Agency) realised that its smallholder tea farmers, despite their passion for growing the crop and application of fertiliser to their crop, lacked the requisite scientific knowledge on how to improve yields in terms of quality and quantity.

Further, the tea sector was facing challenges such as climate change and reduced landholdings, which informed the need to improve yields on smaller pieces of land, while retaining the quality for which KTDA-produced tea had become renowned globally. These challenges conspired to birth the idea of KTDA's Farmer Field Schools, which is a targeted investment in farmer education.

With support from partners such as Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), Unilever, Rainforest Alliance and Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), the idea behind FFS is anchored in the belief that our farmers require the best personalised education service, delivered in an easy-to-understand, yet effective manner. The pedagogy that anchors FFS is unique in its bottom-up, needs-based approach, which trains large numbers of farmers at relatively low-cost, who then train others, and the knowledge chain is sustained.

At the start of the year, farmers are consulted about the key issues affecting both their tea crop and their farm, so that the training can be designed around their needs. Groups of at least 30 farmers are trained over 12 months, based on a prepared curriculum whose development has been researched on and approved by qualified tea specialists.

At the end of the training, the farmers share their experiences with their neighbours, so that education on improved tea practices is spread across the locality. Within a relatively short time, the whole locality receives training on a wide range of topics, which illustrates the effectiveness of the FFS schools-without-walls approach. This trainer-of-trainers model ensures education is seamlessly passed from group to group and eventually to the whole tea farming community. The FFS curriculum includes modules on integrated soil management, harvest and post-harvest management, environmental conservation, composting techniques, replanting and rejuvenation and agronomic management.

Additional topics cover diversification of income, HIV and Aids, and kitchen gardening to improve nutrition and food security. Farmers are encouraged to grow other crops that will supplement their incomes in times when tea does not perform too well, as happens from time to time. All this training is facilitated by KTDA and its partners at no cost to farmers.

The training is tailored around the farmers' schedules so as not to disrupt their normal farm activities. KTDA-trained Tea Extension Service Assistants facilitate this training in the farms.

And the results are hard to ignore. Both internal and independent studies have reported that farmers who have been through the programme boast improved production and yield, greater diversification of income, better living standards and improved health and safety standards. On average, the studies found that average yields increased by 30 per cent for farmers who had undergone FFS training.

In some areas, participants have gone on to form self-help groups that leverage on lessons on the sustainable and diversified agriculture that they had learnt during FFS sessions. It explains why FFS has been so successful – the fact that through education, KTDA farmers have been empowered to take charge of their destiny and earn more income.

What started as a pilot programme in 2006 targeting four factories has quickly scaled to cover all the 66 KTDA-managed factories. To date, more than 48,000 farmers have benefited from the learning programme carried by about 1700 FFSs. The commitment that KTDA farmers have shown towards FFS has catalysed its growth and popularity.

Now, the FFS model is being replicated in other tea-growing countries in Asia and Africa.

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