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Can Agro-Dealers Deliver the Green Revolution in Kenya?

Hannington Odame and Elijah Muange
August 2010

The Government of Kenya, with the backing of development and charitable organisations, has been implementing programmes to increase agricultural productivity and rural incomes and trigger a new Green Revolution (GR). These activities focus on increasing farmers’ access to and application of modern farming inputs, particularly improved seeds and fertilisers, delivered mainly through agro-dealers. Given that Kenyan farmers operate in a highly heterogeneous environment, this study was motivated to ask: Can agro-dealers deliver the Green Revolution in Kenya? In answering this question, the study examined the evolution and characteristics of agrodealers in the cereals subsector and explored how they command a central position in policy narratives put forward by key actors in the policy arena, each advocating a new GR for Kenya.

Several key findings emanate from this study. First, both formal and informal seed systems are important channels for delivering cereal seeds to Kenyan farmers. The informal systems (which do not involve agro-dealers) provide seeds of local maize and other cereals to farmers in low rainfall areas in the greater Eastern region of the country. Conversely, the formal systems use agro-dealers in providing mainly improved maize seed to farmers in high rainfall areas of the greater Western and Central regions of the country. Notwithstanding the importance of the informal systems to many smallholder farmers, the legal, regulatory and policy frameworks, which are informed by international seed policies and conventions, tend to favour the formal systems. As a result, agrodealers may only spur a GR for a select group of privileged producers, mainly maize farmers operating in higher rainfall areas.

Second, while actors in the seed industry employ different approaches in their activities, they are driven by narratives put forward by particular key actors, all converging on the notion of the ‘agro-dealer’ as the carrier of improved seeds to farmers. Interestingly, while the actors promote the agro-dealer agenda, due to different politics and interests, they also support parallel activities that seem to undermine development and expansion of the agro-dealer network in some places.

Third, Kenyan agro-dealers engage in the sale and promotion of diverse commodities as a risk coping mechanism for business survival. Therefore, initiatives aimed at supporting agro-dealers ought to focus on the totality of the business instead of only seeds and fertilisers. As well, if agro-dealers are to deliver a GR in Kenya, capacity training programmes for agro-dealers should not only target the business owners but also ‘managers’ (i.e., those who actually serve customers and are responsible for dispensing advice and information as well as products).

Fourth, the universalising of agro-dealer narrative in GR programmes overlooks the heterogeneity of the ‘poor smallholder farmers’ and agro-dealers themselves. This has resulted in biased beneficiary targeting and disproportionate ‘wins’ for farmers and agro-dealers in high rainfall areas and large agro-dealers in low rainfall areas. Therefore, greater attention must be paid to meeting the needs of farmers in lower potential areas by developing innovative alternative business models. Such models might include sale of complementary non-agricultural products or services or the establishment of group-based agro which might operate part-time or on a not-for-profit basis as a service to their community. Alternatively, mobile agro-dealers might provide regular or periodic services to more remote areas that cannot sustain permanent agro-dealerships. In short, efforts must be made to move away from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ agro-dealer model as it is currently construed.

Finally, the GR programmes have been viewed by critics as a ‘Trojan horse’ for genetically modified (GM) seeds or simply a strategy to ‘roll out a gene revolution’ in Africa. As these new seeds have yet to be released widely, the extent to which agro-dealers have the knowledge and ability to coordinate local-level implementation of national biosafety regulations has yet to be determined and it therefore remains an area requiring further investigation. Given their limited capacity to provide timely advice and information on non-GM technologies to the majority of Kenya’s farmers, however, it is clear that careful consideration is needed before loading agro-dealers with even greater responsibilities and expectations.