Local fruit and dairy products at Nairobi’s Carrefour supermarket.
My reporting trip for the Irish Farmers Journal to find out how East African farmers are connecting with markets is taking me backwards through the value chain. I’m in Nairobi, where I landed two days ago before I travel to rural regions of Kenya and neighbouring Uganda.
This city of more than three million inhabitants illustrates the economic growth that is pushing swathes of Africa from the “developing” into the “emerging” category. Despite its sprawling slums, huge income inequality and infrastructure creaking under monster traffic jams, Nairobi and other cities in the region now have the economic critical mass to draw their hinterlands behind them.
The farm attached to the Brookside milk processing plant in Nairobi is one of the few large ones in Kenya, but the company mostly sources from smallholder farmers.
Payments by mobile phone and, to a lesser extent, bank cards are widely accepted. Middle-class Kenyan consumers dine in fancy restaurants and shop in air-conditioned supermarkets. And the products they buy are largely Kenyan-made. Alongside imported products, the French-owned retailer Carrefour displays large marketing banners advertising products sourced “direct from Kenyan farms” at its flagship store in Nairobi’s newest shopping mall.
This is most visible in the dairy aisle, where locally-made milk, yogurt and butter are king. On Tuesday, I saw the dairy processing plant built in Nairobi by Brookside, Kenya’s largest milk collector. Here, the company centralises the milk produced by 160,000 farmers, most of them milking fewer than ten cows.
Large supermarkets advertise local food as coming from Kenyan farms.
How can such small farmers make the best of this developing market? Expanding consumer demand in the region offers fantastic opportunities, but it would be easy for middlemen to capture all the value from farmers with little education, who work in remote regions.
The recent price crash suffered by Irish farmers on global milk and grain markets, as well as the continuing difficulty in making ends meet on beef farms, show that good trade connections are not enough to guarantee a stable income.
In the coming days, I will visit Kenyan and Ugandan farmers and those who help them on the road to a more commercial type of agriculture. I will observe how they obtain information on prices, overcome logistical challenges and get paid for their products. I will also ask how they manage the financial needs associated with market access, from access to capital to the management of new cash streams and price volatility.
Thomas Hubert is a journalist with the Irish Farmers Journal and a recipient of the winter 2016 round of the Fund. He travelled to Uganda and Kenya in June 2017 to examine how infrastructure and digital technologies can help local farmers to connect with buyers, access credit and financial transactions, and transport produce to consumption centres. Thomas’s feature examining what it will take to turn local subsistence farmers into commercial ones was published by the Irish Farmers Journal in June 2017. The piece also explores the benefits of such a move to the farmers, and to the wider economy, as well as looking at the risks involved.