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Most farms, they say up to 70 per cent, that produce our everyday food crops— cabbage, carrots, onions, tomatoes, beans, green grams and peas—are small-scale. The landholding averages 0.2 to 3 acres and is mainly family owned. Crops like maize and wheat are grown on a large scale in some parts of the country. However, overall, most food is produced by smallholders who practice subsistence farming, selling only the surplus.

Some regions specialize in one crop type. For example, rice and legumes such as peas, green grams, beans and chickpeas are grown in mid- and lower-eastern Kenya. Those who specialize also tend to consider land leasing options and take a commercial approach to farming. They consider the costs of their inputs versus the value of the output, compared to the average subsistence farmer who only sells the surplus.

At this scale of operation, mechanization is complex—and most farms utilize human labour for crop production activities like planting, weeding and harvesting. Tractors might be used for initial ploughing and harvesters might be used to harvest crops like rice and wheat. But access to mechanization is limited by scale.

The use of improved seeds depends on the individual farmer. Some might buy certified seeds, while others prefer to use seeds from previous harvests. Overall, a lot is invested in the form of capital, labour and time. However, without the benefit of large economies of scale, smallholder farmers are not able to maximize the returns to get the full value of their investment.

Over-reliance on rain as a source of water

It is said that crops do not need rain; they need water. On small-scale farms, crops are planted to coincide with the rainy seasons. But rains do fail as they have for the last few years, and with that, the crops fail too. Irrigation systems are available in some pockets of the rural areas, particularly where farmers have organized themselves into groups to source and pipe water to their farms. However, this is the exception.

Those in peri-urban areas are more likely to have irrigation infrastructure that guarantees year-round production. They tend to grow vegetables such as onions, tomatoes, cabbages and leafy greens. Peri-urban farmers’ proximity to urban markets where the demand for these types of farm produce is high guarantees better prices and a return on investment. They are therefore more likely to invest in irrigation infrastructure.

The rural-urban divide

Where a farmer is situated, their proximity to the market and the immediate food needs of that market influence the type of crops grown or livestock kept. The majority of peri-urban farmers focus on growing food for urban dwellers. They might focus on livestock such as poultry to provide eggs and meat as well as indigenous vegetables that have a ready market.

In rural areas, food crops serve immediate family needs, and the surplus is sold or stored. However, as most rural farmers tend to grow the same types of crops, the surplus does not always have a ready market. Poultry is kept and vegetables are also grown, but to a lesser extent than on peri-urban farms. In addition, rural smallholders grow other types of food crops—including bananas, potatoes, beans and maize—to a greater extent than do peri-urban farmers.

Aggregators seeking to supply major towns with food often traverse the countryside collecting produce from farmers. This is a major logistical challenge as buyers have to travel long distances, often on poor roads, to fill up their lorry, pay cess fees across counties and take on the risk of transporting perishable commodities. For example, avocados that ripen and spoil during transportation are discarded. The remaining fruits still have to compensate for the cost of transport. All these challenges contribute to increasing the cost of food in urban areas.

This dual nature of smallholder agriculture poses additional challenges such as: What market are you farming for and what control does the farmer have over the market? Peri-urban farmers have a better grip on their markets and consumer needs. But are rural farmers the invisible party whose work is to produce while someone else dictates market prices and conditions? Is this not the same problem we have with our tea and coffee?

Farming as a side hustle

Farming is a side job for most small-scale farmers. The farmers are engaged in other economic activities to support themselves financially. In the rural areas, they might own a business—a small eatery or a hardware store at the shopping centre, for instance. In peri-urban areas, they might own similar businesses or be employed at a government or private firm.

The farm is not always perceived as a commercial enterprise with considerations about business expenses and revenues. Splitting time between the farm and other economic activities means the farmer is not able to devote much time to it or even expect much from it. They employ farm managers and labourers to manage it, often leading to “telephone farming”, with its share of mismanagement and misappropriation of resources.

The farm is not always perceived as a commercial enterprise with considerations about business expenses and revenues.

Without taking the farm as a serious commercial activity worth of dedicated time and investment, it is no wonder resources are poured in without matching outputs to show for it. But can farmers live on income from a small-scale enterprise only? Probably not.

Transportation and agricultural logistics: The middleman

As mentioned above, transportation is a challenge for most small-scale farmers. Access to an almost-free-to use van/lorry/pickup is a prerequisite as the means of transport factors in two ways. First, taking your farm produce to market yourself can mean a difference in the profit made. Without transport, middlemen or brokers come in; they swarm at individual farmers’ farms dictating quantities and prices. Without alternatives, and staring at already spoiling produce, farmers sell their produce at giveaway prices. Hiring farm transport as an alternative can be expensive, especially with the high cost of fuel. It increases the cost of operations, eating up the already marginal profits.

While taking the produce to the market is not always a viable option—remember farmers have other things to do—it is still an option when you have transport. Peri-urban farmers have found a way around this—loading up produce in their personal cars and selling from their car boots in the evenings.

At a small scale, it is imperative to consider the costs of operations as they can rack up fast, turning losses every year. This has discouraged many, and despair and hopelessness are common among farmers today. For how long can you put in the effort daily but still have failed crops and losses every year? Without a say in the transport and marketing of their produce, farmers will always be at the mercy of brokers.

The agrovet model of farmer education

When rural or peri-urban small-scale farmers need information about a particular crop or livestock pest they approach the local agrovet who advises them on which product to buy and apply. In this context the agrovet is king, supplying products and providing vital information regarding pest and disease control and crop and livestock management and productivity.

With the breakdown of public-funded extension services, farmers adopt a product-first approach to addressing pest or disease problems. This is not only expensive but also potentially harmful to the farmer, the produce, the environment and the end consumer. With profit incentives in mind, the agrovet may not always guide the farmer appropriately in the use of pesticides. They might recommend their own products even where a more conservative approach would be sufficient.

With the breakdown of public-funded extension services, farmers adopt a product-first approach to addressing pest or disease problems.

Without proper guidance on use, safe handling and disposal, the result is farm produce with higher than recommended levels of pesticide residues, chemical-damaged soils and toxicity to beneficial insects and other members of the farm ecosystem.

Traceability and food safety monitoring

As described above, small-scale farming is too fragmented and this has consequences for food safety. It is almost impossible to monitor the produce from each farm—the levels of pesticide residues, and the storage and post-harvest processes that affect food quality and safety.

When government agencies monitor food safety, they do so at the market level, after it has been aggregated and sold to retailers. It is therefore difficult to trace produce back to the farm from which it originated. The alternative, self-regulation by individual farmers, would be too high an expectation.

For the consumer, trying “to eat healthy” can cause more harm than good. You try to add more leafy greens but they are contaminated with factory/sewage waste. Add more fruits? They have high pesticide residues. More nuts and grains? There’s probably aflatoxin waiting for you.

When government agencies monitor food safety, they do so at the market level, after it has been aggregated and sold to retailers.

Large retailers are able to bypass the fragmented nature of small-scale agriculture and source produce directly from farmers. This way, they have better control over quality and safety, albeit at a premium price.

Inequalities such as these can cause harm because you not only have to buy the food, but you also have to pay extra for its safety/quality.

Is there a way out?

Small-scale agriculture as it is practiced today is too impractical to be profitable. The costs of production are high and a lot of the production aspects are still outside the farmer’s control. Huge investments are made in terms of labour, money and time without outputs to show for it. Unless a farmer is growing food for their own personal use, more deliberate efforts should be made to enhance production, minimize costs and ensure the safety of the produce. Is there a way to apply to small-scale farming the methods used in large-scale operations? Small-scale agriculture may be difficult to reform but creating farming zones could simulate large-scale operations in small-scale settings.