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14.07.2016 11:37 Age: 4 yrs
Category: General HORTINLEA, SP 13, SP 8

Organic Agriculture: The Better Alternative

The Green River Project supervised by Esther Kiruthi is an example for organic agriculture in Kenya. © Dr. Emil Gevorgyan

Organic agriculture in Kenya has grown measurably in the past years. It includes all agricultural systems that promote the environmentally, socially and economically sound production of food and fibres. Almost all Kenyans have gained experience both with certified and non-certified organic production, for overseas markets as well as for local food supply. Organic farming contains great potential regarding biodiversity-conservation and sustainability. However, this agricultural practice faces many challenges like poor institutional guidance and difficult commercialisation.

Conventional agriculture in Kenya has hit its boundaries in the last years. Soil fertility is declining due to continuous cultivation. It becomes more difficult to combat unpredictable climate because of high energy requirements during manufacture. And finally, only ten percent of the Kenyan population is actually food secure. “Getting stuck on conventional agriculture is a major problem”, says Ngugi Mutura, an expert on sustainable agriculture and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the “Sustainable Agriculture Community Development Programme” (SACDEP) in Kenya. “People are dependent on this type of agriculture.” The need to build natural resource capital has contributed to the interest in organic agriculture. Kenya has vast natural resources, favourable climatic conditions and enough wild harvest area. Organic agriculture apart from being suitable to marginal as well as productive areas, contributes to conserve this biodiversity as well as soil and water resources. It produces the diversity necessary for healthy and sustainable nutrition.

One of the major hopes for organic farming lies upon African Indigenous Vegetables (AIVs). These underutilised plants are able to cope with environmental challenges and have high nutritional value. Various traditional plants like amaranth or spider plant can also contribute to biodiversity conservation. “Indigenous vegetables were one of the things that were left behind by conventional agriculture. But the loss of indigenous foods meant loss of food security.” says the expert. Reviving local resources and indigenous knowledge also strengthens farming communities. This is vital for organic farming practices.

Furthermore local soil fertility is a key element to successful organic production. The preparation of soil with organic material, animal droppings and small coal pieces are examples. By taking into regard the natural capacity of plants, animals and the landscape, it aims to optimise quality in all aspects of agriculture and the environment. Organic agriculture dramatically reduces external inputs by refraining from the use of chemosynthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. Organic pesticides are rarely lethal, but send pests away with their strong smell. Crushed tomato leafs for example control cabbage butterflies and caterpillars. A natural mode of operation increases both agricultural yields and disease resistance in a longer period of time.

Almost all communities in Kenya suffer from unresolved waste disposal and the improper use of agricultural chemicals. “The use of chemical fertilisers creates imbalanced soil environment and compaction”, says Esther Kiruthi, coordinatior of "Community Sustainable Agriculture and Healthy Environmental Program" (CSHEP). This is a community based organisation in Kenya which trains small-scale farmers in sustainable and bio intensive farming. “Chemical fertilisers lead to residues remains that result in a change in soil ph and a loss of soil micro-organisms.” In contrast, the application of organic inputs supplies substrate to soil biological processes that in turn strengthens the ability of soil to provide plant nutrients, maintain soil structure, retain water and detoxify agents harmful to plant roots. Additionally, organic inputs are often cheaper to produce and easily accessible because of using materials which can be found in almost every farm.

But there are also several challenges while implementing organic farming. In Kenya, organic agriculture was initiated by NGOs in order to tackle declining agricultural productivity and poverty. It was – and maybe still is - seen as low cost approach. Today, NGOs mainly raise awareness and offer training on proper usage of locally available materials to maximise production. The main actors are the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) with their member organisations. However, where commercial application has been feasible, lack of critical mass and economics of scale have limited a strategic market development. “The mind-set and the eating habits are great challenges in commercialisation”, states Mutura.

Marketing and market access have been identified as the missing dimensions in Kenya’s agricultural development. That is why organic farmer associations such as the Kenya Organic Farmers Association (KOFA) try to push commercialisation. Since the majority of organic farmers in Kenya are part of such organisations, in the last couple of years marketing of organic products has become an area of focus. This resulted in an increase in the production and export to Europe and North America. New private sector initiatives for organic products have emerged on commercial basis, causing further diversification in the sector.

Traditional farming practices often include organic agriculture approaches even if the farmers are not aware of it. Nonetheless this does not mean it is “organic by default”. Existing standards regulate the national and international market. The development of organic agriculture in Kenya has been uncoordinated and disjointed in its integration in trade with the international world. In addition, investments both from inside and outside of Kenya flow to conventional and organic agriculture at the same time. Only recently in February 2016, Kenya has approved cultivation trials for GMO maize, lifting a ban for GMOs from 2012. One aspect that could bring fresh impetus though, is the devolution process. “But despite the fact that the ministry of agriculture acts under the county government, not much has been done in regard to organic agriculture”, states Kiruthi. However, this new framework can lead to impetus for organic agriculture in the future.

Green Revolution – Sustainable Agriculture – Organic Agriculture
In contrast to the Green Revolution, which relies heavily upon mineral fertilisers and genetic engineering of crops, organic agriculture condemns most use of synthetic substances and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs ). For similar reasons – the use of chemical inputs – organic agriculture and sustainable agriculture are not the same thing. Sustainable agriculture is the management of agricultural resources and production to satisfy changing human needs while conserving the natural resources and maintaining the environment.

© Marlen Bachmann, Lucas Zahl