The Oscars for Kenyan farmers

The Kenya National Farmers Awards, an annual fete that seeks to celebrate the country’s finest in farming and now in its fourth year, is the latest stab by the country at enticing especially women and youth in farming, a constituency traditionally neglected in food production.

It is a spirited effort to give the sector its mojo as the country looks to its smallholder farmers to feed a bourgeoning population and create jobs for its people. Agriculture provides more than a quarter of the Kenya’s GDP while providing income and jobs to 75 per cent of the population. Smallholder farmers constitute over 70 per cent of all food producers in the country according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Kenya has been looking to agriculture as one of the anchor sectors that will help propel it to the mid economic status through the country’s economic blue print Vision 2030.

Counting on technology

But the sector has traditionally been beset by numerous hiccups including tired soils from overuse of chemicals, and age old farming practices that have taken a toll on yields.  Such practices with no economic payoffs have turned the young people away from agriculture. But a revolution has slowly been unfolding. A growing number of young people buoyed by the technology advancements and the investment in new age farming by both government and private companies are being enticed into farming. Mobile phone applications and other technological platforms have resulted what are now being referred to as ‘telephone farmers.’ They include youth some educated and working in cities but practicing agriculture as a part time activity. Such enthusiasm is being tapped and encouraged through schemes like the National Farmers Awards. “We started the awards because we wanted to return dignity to the soils. We wanted to encourage especially more women and youth who are key in food production to focus more energy and passion into agriculture so that we can keep feeding our people,” said Mr. Bimal Kantaria, the patron of the awards.

Returning dignity to the soils

Christened the Oscars for Kenyan farmers, the awards, meant to return dignity to the soils, are high profile - complete with a red carpet in Kenya’s finest hotel with a high caliber guest list that includes the president. Winners receive plaques and cash prizes. Key categories rewarded include best woman, best youth and best physically disabled farmer among others. The ceremony is a culmination of months of judging where a panel from Kenya’s ministry of agriculture move around the country auditing farms for good agricultural practices before picking the best three in each category.

Florence Nyawira was the best Kenyan woman farmer in last year’s awards. The judges picked her for maximizing her farm by planting coffee, kales, tomatoes, bananas and even keeping dairy cows. Besides her mixed farming which allowed increased earnings throughout the year, Florence was also feted for embracing low cost innovations that allow maximum optimization of land. The innovations include miniature drip lines that ensure judicious use of water in an area that experiences scarce water, improvised greenhouse sheeting materials that protect crops from harsh weather and pests and fertilizer microdosing techniques that tame fertilizer wastage in a country where fertilizer access is every farmers’ headache. Interestingly she got inspired into mixed farming after learning and visiting the winner of the inaugural awards in 2012. “I visited her farm and was amazed by how much money she was making through unique farming practices like crop rotation. When I saw her shaking the President’s hand I made a vow to myself, that I would be next. It took time, but I finally made it,” she said. Besides creating soil celebrities, the awards have been credited with inspiring ordinary farmers to work hard to also receive recognition. But the awards have also created a platform where industry players exchange ideas on tapping more farmers especially young people to embrace farming. Since the awards were introduced for example, the Ministry of Agriculture has been partnering with various institutions of learning and the private sector to introduce modern technologies like greenhouses to spur uptake among students. It also announced a subsidy on high value seeds as a way of encouraging farmers to adopt modern farming practices.