Farmers look to alternative market outlets as COVID-19 raises innovative bar to stay afloat

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By Verenardo Meeme, Rootooba, 10 September 2020


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt agricultural production in Kenya, resilient young farmers have seized the opportunity to break market trends by displacing brokers and reach out to consumers directly.

The change comes as perception studies suggest that young people are less interested in agriculture. But for 26-year-old Joseph Ndichu, farming is the future. 

‘‘I can reveal that agribusiness is more profitable compared to other ventures. I have done it for two years since I dropped out of college to concentrate on farming,’’ Ndichu says.

Ndichu’s family has a five-acre farm in Lari, Kiambu County, that produces various crops including broccoli, cauliflower, capsicum, carrots, and courgette. According to Ndichu, these are high-value crops which fetch cash anytime provided that they are fresh, safe, and appeal to consumers.

As an experienced young farmer, Ndichu has used indigenous knowledge to preserve his produce. ‘‘I put perishable produce on a floor in an open space to preserve them as the floor is cold. They can last for two days,’’ he says.

Of late he has discovered a prime location on the Northern bypass at the Ridgeways/Windsor roundabout in Nairobi that has become a popular roadside market. He sells his produce from the boot of his car. Ndichu uses the fact that he has grown what he sells to win over customers, particularly with the increasing demand by consumers for traceability of produce.  

He adds that he has managed to make more profits during the COVID-19 pandemic because most customers have avoided the malls, opting for the roadside market.  

“We open our business in the afternoons to give customers enough time to shop for a variety of products. The flow of customers does not diminish until near curfew time in the evening,” he says. 

“The challenge is timing. We have few hours to sell our produce yet we come from far away and we need to fuel our cars every day,” he adds.

Farmer Joseph Ndichu displays broccoli and cauliflower in front of his car boot where he sells various farm produce at the Ridgeways/Windsor roundabout in Nairobi, Kenya.

He says he chose to grow cauliflower and broccoli because not many farmers know how to grow them while the market niche was outstanding and the demand was there. Besides, he noted the profit margins were higher than other vegetables like carrots and kale. 

Linet Naliaka, a flower salesperson along the Northern bypass, observes that there were no fresh produce vendors along the road before COVID-19 after which they started trickling one after the other. This has resulted in traffic snarl-ups in the evening. 

Another youth, Grace Njoroge, from Muchatha, Kiambu County, has been in business for three months now. ‘‘Initially, I was working in a salon, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the business closed, leaving me jobless. Instead of staying home, I decided to venture into a business to fetch some income,’’ she says.

Grace, who gets her produce from Marikiti and Githurai markets, prefers the roadside sales instead of supermarkets because it gives her close access to buyers. She has little capital and decries bureaucratic processes required to engage retail outlets such as supermarkets.  “Farmers around have benefited from this venture as many traders here go and buy directly from them. Also, some farmers have come out to join in selling,” she says.

But the county government of Kiambu has taken notice of the new market and has threatened to bar them from the area because the outlets do not contribute to county revenue. 

The markets are also penetrating into the high-end residential areas, as many buyers find it convenient. 

According to Mr. Leonard Kubok, the Interim Head of the Directorate of Food Crops at the Agriculture and Food Authority, the Crops (Food Crops) Regulations, 2019 identifies car boots as one of the physical mediums where a buyer and a seller can trade in produce. However, there is a lacuna in proper regulation compared to conventional retail businesses.

‘‘The current scenario is a coping mechanism and once the pandemic is over, most of the sellers will go back to their previous engagements,’’ says Mr. Kuburok.

“Car boot sales were not uncommon and existed before COVID-19. The phenomenon seems to have spiked due to the hard economic realities affecting people due to the pandemic. For now, most of these operators are trying to make ends meet,” he observes.

He adds that farmers could have cut off a layer of traders/middlemen/brokers who take a margin of profits from producers.  

Produce commonly traded using car boots includes fruits such as bananas, oranges and lemons; vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, leafy vegetables, and green maize; and roots and tuber crops like potatoes and arrowroots. 

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