Amidst drought, Kenyan farmers threatened by low seed volume and limited crop choices

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As Kenyans brace for another bout with drought, a new study released today finds local agro-dealers could play a pivotal role in helping farmers adapt to climate change—yet their assistance is severely limited by a shortage of certified crop seed stocks and financing options.
Kenya Markets Trust, through its implementing partner in crop seed, Agri Experience, a Nairobi-based seed consulting firm, commissioned a study to interview 438 agro-dealers across eight counties. The study, which was carried out by Bayesian Consulting Group, found farmer demand for certified seed regularly exhausted stocks at the agrodealer shops, particularly for non-maize seed. The lack of seed for crops other than maize impedes efforts to fight climate change through crop diversification.
“What this report shows is that as growing conditions become more challenging, the fight for food security in Kenya may be won or lost with rural agro-dealers,” said Anastasia Mbatia, a seed distribution specialist at Agri Experience. “While we are glad to hear farmer demand for certified seed is rising rapidly, it is frustrating to learn that many agro-dealers lack both the quantity and variety of seeds Kenyan farmers need to avoid drought-induced devastation.”
For example, 51 per cent of the agro-dealers interviewed said they cannot keep up with farmer demand for certified seed. Meanwhile, 18 per cent lack the financing to increase stocks, even though potential sales would easily cover the credit. Moreover, agro-dealers often lacked certified seed for crops other than maize. As many agriculture experts note, improved varieties of crops like beans, sorghum and millet would be far better choices than maize when climate forecasts (like those for early 2017) warn of unreliable rains.
“It’s frustrating that crop breeders have developed varieties that could protect Kenyan farmers from drought, yet too often seeds for these crops simply are not easily accessible for farmers,” said Noel Templer, a research manager at Agri Experience. “But at least we have a strong network of agro-dealers in Kenya that appears receptive to expanding its seed offerings. What agro-dealers need is the financial support and the seed quantities to help them do it.”
The Untapped Potential of Kenya’s Agro-dealers
The analysts traveled to 438 rural agro-dealerships in eight counties spanning various regions of the country, namely: Murang’a (Central), Taita-Taveta (Coast); Meru (Upper Eastern); Nakuru (Central Rift), Kericho (South Rift); Trans-Nzoia (North Rift); Bungoma (Western) and Kisii (Nyanza). They surveyed agro-dealers about a wide range of issues that affected their businesses, including education levels, supplier relationships, gender, business costs, sales trends, and use of information and communications technology.
The analysts found that over 80 per cent of Kenya’s agro-dealership owners have a college, graduate or post graduate level education. Therefore, they have the expertise to steer farmers to seed and inputs that can help them adapt to shifts in growing conditions. About 76 per cent of the agro-dealers said they work to educate farmers about both seed choices and farming practices that can boost yields.
A key positive finding from the study is that between 2014 and 2015, agro-dealers posted an 85 per cent increase in the volume of maize seed they stocked and another 27 per cent jump in the 2016 long rains season. That’s important, because maize harvests in Kenya, which average about 1.6 metric tons per hectare, lag far behind the global average of 5.6 metric tons. Wider use of certified seed for improved maize varieties is viewed as essential to closing this chronic “yield gap.”
“This intense demand for high quality certified seed justifies extending affordable credit to agro-dealers to boost their inventory,” said Templer. “In this study, financing for agro-dealers emerged as a major barrier to offering farmers a wider menu of seed choices.”
For example, while all of the agro-dealers said they carried maize seed, only 42 per cent stocked bean seeds, 16 per cent stocked sorghum, 10 per cent carried finger millet, and 4 per cent offered seed for green grams and cowpeas. The study authors saw these numbers as further evidence that Kenya’s farmers are over-reliant on maize, which often performs poorly in drought relative to other crops.
“It’s time to reduce the dominance of maize on Kenyan farms and in Kenyan diets and to do that, farmers need access to a much wider range of quality seeds for crops like beans and cowpeas,” said Julius Kamau, an agrodealer at Juja Agrovet in Embu County. “Seed producers can help by working with agro-dealers to establish demonstration plots that can showcase the superior performance of certified seeds for an array of crops.”
The study authors said the lack of a wider assortment of seeds at local agro-dealers is also an indication that many farmers continue to obtain seed through informal channels. For example, they save seed from a previous year’s crop or obtain it from a neighboring farm or local farmer’s market, and often recycle it for very long periods of time without refreshing it. In fact, despite growing demand for certified seeds from commercial producers, about 78 per cent of all seed planted in Kenya still comes via informal channels.
Other key findings of the study include also show that agro-dealerships offer important opportunities for young people (under the age of 35), who were found to own just over 70 per cent of stockist businesses, while accounting for 29 per cent of wholesale agro-dealerships. While most agro-dealers (about 76 per cent) provide farmers with information about improved seed over the counter, an alarming 66 per cent said they are unable to respond to farmers’ complaints. These mostly have to do with so-called poor quality seed, which doesn’t germinate, is considered “fake”, or is deficient in other ways.
Of those dealerships surveyed, 44 per cent were operated by women, though women were somewhat less likely (at 37 per cent) to be the owners of these businesses.
On average, more than half of the agro-dealers’ customers for seed were women. Only about a quarter of agro-dealers are members of county-level agro dealer associations. While the concept of these associations is relatively new, authors note that growing these organisations is critical for providing a platform for agro-dealers in lobbying and influencing agriculture policies.
Close to 50 per cent of agro-dealers indicated that small holder farmers prefer seed packets of one kilogram and below. Because they are more affordable, smaller packs can encourage farmers to try new varieties.
Despite the benefits of technology to improve their businesses, agro-dealers’ use of information and communications technology (ICT) for business management is limited, with 66 per cent saying they do not use ICT tools. The report authors recommend that ICT should be promoted more among agro-dealers, and note that there is an opportunity to develop new, affordable tools for the agri-business sector.
The results of this study, including its recommendations, are expected to help guide both public and private sector organisations as they seek to enhance the role of agro-dealers in Kenya’s agriculture industry, with the aim of reinforcing the formal seed system and expanding the adoption of improved crop seed varieties.

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