The Man With the Green Thumb
Updated: Nov 12, 2022
At daybreak, on most days, he makes for the door, hops into his truck and off he disappears into the dark horizon. Some days he fiddles with the stereo and plays his audiobook, other days he sits embracing the comfort brought about by the silence. His farmhands arrive at the assembly point long before he does, eagerly waiting for the day's assignment. Eight out of the twelve are women. Being farmers themselves, they know this routine by heart. All year round, they work at this man's farm in the morning to earn just about enough for the day, and tend their farms in the afternoon. This is an ordinary day in the life of Lawrence, the mixed crop farmer and who I’d like to call the man with the green thumb.
Today, I accompanied Lawrence to one of his potato farms. This farm tour is particularly intriguing as I would like to understand his value chain, gauge how sustainable his farming practice is and to explore the extent to which his livelihood has been affected by climate change. According to FAO, agriculture contributes 33% towards Kenya’s GDP and employs 40% of the total population with over 70% residing in the rural areas (1). Over the years, the advancement of energy systems that provide reliable, accessible, and affordable energy has made significant positive impacts in different sectors across the world, agriculture included. You may be wondering why I find this intriguing? It is because presently, the agri-food sector is responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions from anthropogenic activities. By 2050, this sector will contribute up to half of all such emissions if we do not embrace sustainable food systems (2).
The potatoes are smack in the middle of their budding phase. This is the calm before the storm when the crop has just completed its sprouting phase and is about to enter its most rigorous stage of flowering where it will absorb as much nutrients as it can to form the root tubers. You see, potatoes are heavy feeders and crops that love chilly temperatures and well drained loam soil. Any slight increase or decrease in the temperatures or inconsistent rainfall intensity affects the yield. Hence today, Lawrence is spraying the leaves and buds with an organic seaweed fertiliser, sourced from the local agrovet, to stimulate the tubers to feed and absorb the most nutrients in an unfavourable environment. In due time, when the crop is mature, the potatoes will be harvested and sold to brokers directly from the farm, who will pay a flexible farm gate price. After which the cycle begins once more, starting with the sourcing of seeds from the Agriculture Development Corporation or certified seed farmers such as KEPHIS. Lawrence highlights that hands down, one of his main challenges operating in the sector besides the high cost of farm inputs, is the fluctuating market prices coupled with poor market organisation.
Overtime, Lawrence has observed that the male farmhands prefer spraying jobs while the females prefer planting and weeding. This was striking to me as planting and weeding are the highest paying of the two. The unfortunate reality behind this fact is plain and simple - generally, the women in this area have more needs and will take up intricate jobs to earn more so as to be able to sustain their livelihoods.
Bob* his farmhand for today uses a man-held pump to administer the fertiliser. A diesel pump is an alternative which can get the job done in half the time. However, Lawrence explains to me that diesel pumps are heavy and cause health implications such as backaches. Moreover, the available irrigation solar pumps are not that popular, because not only are they expensive, they are also small and cannot operate in large tracts of land. Furthermore, a majority of the farmers lease land and installing solar pumps will cost them more in the long run.
In terms of mechanisation, the only machines used are diesel-run tractors when ploughing and rowing the land. Otherwise, manual labour is the order of the day due to the high cost of production per acre. You may be wondering how much he spends on electricity? You guessed it - zero! And speaking of labour, the farm level workforce varies depending on the task at hand. Did I mention that on top of being very needy, potatoes are also extremely demanding and require a lot of workforce? There is an evident shortage of skilled labour and therefore, a great deal of supervision is required. Lawrence could mechanise his workforce. However, not only are the machines not readily available in the country but they also cost an arm and a leg! A true catch-22!
"So Lawrence, in your years of farming, have you witnessed climate change and its effects?"
"Very much so! The weather patterns have been shifting a lot more frequently these days and it is proving to be very costly when my yields decrease."
"When that happens, how do you cope?"
"I will try my best. You have to do what you have to do, you know. I practise crop rotation. Since it takes four months for potatoes to mature into a harvest, I grow them twice a year, and then diversify with maize, peas, cabbages every two years to restore the nitrogen content in the soil."
“What are some of the techniques you use to prevent food wastage/loss? Give out for free to poor families. That's a loss for the farm but a gain for them.”
“Which local and national policies enable/hinder the progression of your farming? There are no policies that the government has implemented. They are just on paper.”
What are some of the messages you would like to pass to the next generation? Farming is so rewarding, both financially and having a sense of achievement. You set production goals and beat them and keep challenging yourself.”
(1) FAO, 2022. Kenya at a glance: The agricultural sector in Kenya.
This is my very first entry on the sustainable food systems series which aims to bring awareness towards the importance of an enabling environment towards improved energy systems for sustainable agricultural value chains. It has been inspired by my life experiences as I come from a lineage that has relied on the natural climate for its farming livelihood for generations.
This series will explore the following:
The differences between the present day and previous agricultural practices, what has influenced the contrasts and how much of it has been influenced by climate change. Were the practices more carbon intensive then or are now?
The practicality of switching to sustainable agriculture, taking into account the costs, policies, mindsets/mentalities
Also, the effect of colonialism on indigenous sustainable agricultural practices