Esther Kahinga

‘Banana Has Potential’: From a field school to commercial venture, Nyangorora provides a sustainable model for smallholder farmers

Smallholder agriculture continues to play a key role in many African countries. In Kenya, the government estimates that it accounts for more than 70 percent of agricultural production and over 60 percent of employment, according to a 2014 economic survey. Despite this huge contribution in an agriculture-based economy, farmers face numerous challenges in their quest to increase agricultural production and access markets for their produce. Often, farmers sell their produce to middlemen who offer very low prices. According to a 2010 study by the African Development Bank, the most common challenges that farmers face relate to limited access to input and output markets, land tenure and management, access to credit, poor infrastructure and limited-to-nonexistent extension services.

Several interventions have attempted to address the above challenges with the aim of improving the livelihoods of small-scale farmers. In the wake of climate change and the associated prolonged droughts, floods and depressed rainfall, the need to diversify the livelihoods of smallholder farmers is increasing by the day.

A 2012 study, “Market participation among rural poor households in Kenya by John Olwande and Mary Mathenge of Egerton University, Kenya, found that “any hope for the poor to participate in markets and make any meaningful gains from agriculture lies in improving productivity of their land as well as improving their access to land. Increasing social capital through promotion of collective action among poor households can also be of great value in enhancing their access to markets.”

Nyangorora Banana Processors

I recently encountered a collaboration between farmers, research institutes, development partners and county governments that has evolved over time and could present a sustainable way of enhancing access to markets for smallholder farmers in the country.

In 2004, researchers from the then Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) – which in 2014 was merged with other organisations to form the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation – set out to the hilly landscape of Kisii in Kenya to work with farmers and identify the best banana varieties for the region. The approach was to set up farmer field schools, and Nyangorora Farmer Field School was one of them. (Nyangorora means a hilly place in the local Gusii dialect.)

By 2006, the best banana varieties had been identified and farmers had received training on postharvest handling. This marked the end of the field schools, and the Nyangorora Banana Youth Group consisting of 44 farmers was formed. The youth group started commercial farming of bananas and within a short period of time, the local market was saturated with ripe bananas.

To work around this, the youth group started looking for ways to diversify the banana value chain. First, they made banana wine. Then they sought help from KARI on finding other value addition activities. KARI arranged for Jared Omiso, the leader of the youth group, to visit Uganda, where the banana value chain is much more advanced. KARI researchers also helped the youth group develop a proposal that was presented to the Nyamira Constituency Development Fund (CDF).

In 2009, Nyamira CDF supported the youth group with Ksh 10,000 (about U.S. $100) that was used to buy 7,000 banana suckers (the banana stem that is used for propagation of banana plants) which were distributed among members of the group. The group later sought support from the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI) and in 2011, they stepped in with machinery that helped the group to process banana flour. With time, the group realized that the banana flour was not moving as fast as they anticipated, and most often it expired on the shelves in the shops and supermarkets in Kisii town. With support from KIRDI, the group acquired an oven that they now use to bake bread from banana flour.

In 2013, the USAID Kenya Horticulture Competitiveness Project also stepped in to help the youth group register as a company – Nyangorora Banana Processors. The USAID project later helped the new company acquire machines that process bananas into crisps and package them attractively. USAID also supported the construction of 12 collection centers in parts of Kisii and Nyamira counties. Each collection center has registered farmers, and bananas are collected from the centers on specific days of the week. In total, 3,500 farmers have joined the collection centers. The idea is to have continuous and controlled flow of bananas at the processing facility which is housed at the Kisii Agricultural Training Center. The matoke crisps, branded as “Ritoke Crisps, are currently available in supermarkets in Kisii and some parts of Nairobi.

Nyangorora Banana Processors has had talks with the ministry of agriculture and in September 2014 they formed 135 common interest groups that bring together about 1,500 banana farmers from Nyamira County. With support from the county government of Nyamira, the company plans to set up an additional 20 collection centers and 20 nurseries that will propagate banana suckers. The county government has also identified some land that the company can use to set up a larger processing plant. The current plant has limited production capacity and will not be able to handle the volumes that will be generated by the additional 1,500 farmers. Even though Nyangorora Banana Processors has made some progress with the county government, the progress has been slow and they are now looking for support to expand their processing capacity and also diversify their products.

Omiso, leader of Nyangorora Banana Processors, has been to Uganda several times since KARI first took him there. Each time he goes, he checks on how the banana value chain is growing. On a recent trip, he came across a machine that is being used to process the banana stem to paper, and the company is looking for support to acquire the machine. Some fabrics are also being made from the stem. The machine is also used to recycle paper and Nyangorora plans to venture into banana stem processing in the near future.

Omiso says, “Banana has lots of potential but our leaders are not concentrating on it.”

A critical look at the evolution of Nyangorora from the time it was a farmer field school to the present, where it is operating as a company, reveals a model that could emerge as a sustainable way of increasing access to markets for smallholder farmers. Even though different partners came on board at different times during the evolution of Nyangorora, their impact can still be felt to date.

Devolution is slowly taking shape in Kenya, and county agriculture ministries and other local authorities in developing countries might want to explore a refinement of the Nyangorora model. For instance, Kenya already has many community-based organizations working in agriculture. Maybe all that is needed is to identify the high-potential ones and link them to agribusiness experts, development partners and research institutes to develop the value chains of high-value crops that perform well in each region.

This blog originally appeared on the Climate Innovation Center newsletter.

Esther Kahinga is the communication and knowledge management officer at the Climate Innovation Center.

business development, manufacturing