Interview:  Mohammad Abu-Ghazaleh

What can be done to encourage the development of large-scale agricultural projects in Kenya?

MOHAMMAD ABU-GHAZALEH: The agriculture sector here, as well as in most African countries, is dominated by small-scale and subsistence farming rather than large-scale agricultural projects. These types of farming tend to have lower productivity, and ultimately limit the extent to which the agriculture sector can contribute to the country’s development.

Similarly to many countries across the world, land ownership in Kenya is characterised by small parcels that contribute to the geographical fragmentation of high-potential agricultural land. While Kenya does have a few large projects, specifically in tea and coffee, the vast majority of farming is small-scale, with low utilisation of technology and mechanisation.

Currently, the only way forward I can see is for these small growers to form cooperatives that will then be able to benefit from economies of scale; or for them to lease their land to multinationals or local investors, who can then farm the land far more productively by bringing in international know-how and mechanisation. These same farmers would then be employed on the land, thus obtaining income both from leasing the land and from farming it.

This is a model that we have made work successfully in markets like the Philippines, where small landowners have grouped together and leased their land for large-scale banana farming. It is definitely feasible in the Kenyan context, but would require support and guidance from the government through policy improvements and education initiatives.

How can increased agricultural productivity be encouraged in African countries?

ABU-GHAZALEH: Africa in general has everything going for it when it comes to agriculture: good climate, adequate water and productive soil. However, many farmers do not have the know-how or technology to boost productivity, and they certainly do not have the funds to invest in these improvements. A solution must go beyond simply providing inputs: for example, if farmers were provided with subsidised fertilisers, they would still need to know what they should be fertilising, when they should be fertilising, which type of fertiliser to use and so on.

In an ideal world, the government would step in to provide training and technology, but, practically speaking, there is no way they can do this for the multitude of farmers across the country. To reiterate, we see the solution being the development of cooperatives and large-scale projects.

What sort of specific policies might help to encourage value-added agricultural activities?

ABU-GHAZALEH: Large-scale agriculture projects naturally lend themselves to value-added activities. Taking the small-scale approach towards value-added products can work, but this requires that farmers be given assistance and guidance. For example, processed mangoes, in the form of concentrates or other goods, have good potential in Kenya. However, a mango tree requires three to four years before it flowers and starts producing fruit, and three to four years without income is simply too long for most farmers in Kenya. Only if these farmers were to be given governmental support could a long-term investment like this become a viable option.

Equally important is ensuring that there is a route to market for these goods. Having sufficient transport infrastructure from farms to economic centres and export facilities is essential, a point that is being addressed by the road and rail projects currently in development. Furthermore, the Mombasa port needs to be expanded, even beyond the development plans currently under way. The port is no longer just for Kenya; it is for the entire East Africa region, and this region is expected to grow for years to come.