From Nkubu with love (and lots of bananas)

Sometimes nature conspires to bless the farmer with everything from fertile soils and reliable rainfall to bountiful harvests, but then economics comes in and undoes all this, forcing farmers to settle for much less than they should for their crop, enriching brokers, and ensuring that consumers pay more for food.

Ten years ago, a newly-retired Jacob Mwirigi decided to turn his combined five acres into a banana farm. Situated in Nkubu, Meru County, his farms are among countless others taking advantage of the perfect balance of reliable water, rich red soils and favourable temperatures to produce large bunches of bananas.

But despite the often plentiful harvest, as much as 40 kilos per stem, Mwirigi, and many others like him, were not making what they knew they could make from their farms. This issue wasn’t production: it was a lack of access to market that forced them to rely on brokers to sell their produce.

These brokers would typically operate in groups. According to him, there was a chain of command: a scout, whose job was to seek out farmers; the broker, who would contact the farmer and buy the produce; and the buyer, sometimes someone as far away as Mombasa, who would get the produce from the broker and distribute to retailers and mama mbogas (fruit and vegetable vendors).

“They would take a lot of the money I would otherwise have made from the person buying the bananas. These brokers were making up to three times what they gave us for our harvest,” recalls Mwirigi.

The brokers, or their scouts, would carry out a visual inspection of the bananas spread over his farms and would, as if by a magic formula, assign a price to each cluster. Every time this happened, he says, they would price the harvest at no more than KES 40,000, but each time, they would leave with a truck full of bananas.

It’s a story synonymous with farming in Kenya, where brokers and wholesalers make more money than the farmer. It’s a story however, that is likely to change as more young people focus on using technology to provide practical solutions to the challenges faced by the agriculture sector – and more farmers like Mwirigi begin to embrace technology.

Today, the 70-year-old is one of more than 5,000 farmers in Meru County who are the direct beneficiaries of the M-PESA Daraja API (Application Programming Interface). Through this API, Twiga Foods, an m-commerce start-up, is disrupting the traditional agriculture value chain by cutting out the middle man, and linking farmers to fair markets. This is how.

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