Organic Farms = Africa

Kevin Ancell kancell at
Mon Jun 3 08:34:32 EDT 2002

The Washington Times


Organic farms slowly take root in Africa
Mike Crawley

Published 6/3/2002


     KERUGOYA, Kenya - Here in the heavily farmed foothills south of Mount
Kenya, the trees are bright green and most of the soil is a rusty red. But
on the three-quarters of an acre where he grows green beans, Joseph Wakane's
land is a deep chocolate brown - a sign of health he attributes to the
chemical-free, organic-farming techniques he has adopted.

"Digging, making trenches, applying compost, mixing it with the soil - It's
hard work for me to do on my own, so I must hire labor from other people,"
he explains.

Despite the labor intensiveness, advantages include better soil fertility,
less dependence on costly imported chemicals, and ultimately, premium prices
on the export market.

Mr. Wakane is one of a small but growing number of African farmers trying to
tap into the $20 billion annual world market in premium organic foods.
Africa trails world production - and Kenya, a major food exporter, trails
the continent - in organics. It's something Mr. Wakane and others are trying
to change.

"The Ministry of Agriculture has not come up with a policy that really puts
an emphasis on organic farming. It's the [nongovernmental organizations] and
farmers who are taking the initiative to go organic," says Kithinji Gitaari
Boore, field manager for the Association for Better Land Husbandry (ABLH), a
nonprofit group that works with farmers here.

According to official statistics gathered by Germany's Foundation for
Ecology and Agriculture, organic farms account for 2 percent of Europe's
farmland, 0.22 percent in the United States, and less than .003 of 1 percent
in Africa.

While far more African land is probably being farmed without chemical
inputs, many governments don't keep track, and few countries have systems
for granting official organic certification. Without certification, foods
cannot be marketed or sold as premium organic products.

Uganda leads the way on the continent, producing about 10 percent of the
world's organically grown cotton. Consumers in the West can buy organic
cocoa from Ivory Coast, organic coffee from Ethiopia, organic pineapples
from Ghana, and organic cashews from Mozambique.

Uganda has 7,000 farmers registered as organic producers and Tanzania has
4,000. Neighboring Kenya has none.

Even for the converts, many obstacles remain before they can gain access to
the lucrative overseas market for organic food.

"Most of the farms here are small-scale farms, and they have to come out
with big amounts, tons and tons of crops, to be able to export
economically," says Mr. Boore. "A single farmer trying to work organically
is not going to get any benefit."

Gladys Kanegeni appreciates saving money on fertilizers, enjoys eating food
that is chemical-free, and is pleased with the yields of tomatoes, okra,
peppers and bananas she gets from organic techniques. She just wishes her
crops would fetch more money.

"When I take the products to the local market, the prices offered are just
like the ones not grown through organic farming," she says. "We do a lot of
work in growing them, so sometimes we feel discouraged because there's no
premium for the work done."

Another challenge for farmers is that exporters demand consistent quality
and continuous supply, requiring coordinated planting times. Transport
systems are often poor and the farmers themselves have little financial
cushion to hire extra labor or to cope with a mediocre harvest.

ABLH is trying to help farmers by grouping them into production units,
assisting with marketing, and creating a local organic-certification body.
Until they are certified as organic producers, the farmers working with ABLH
must sell their premium produce at non-premium prices.

"The problem is that we don't have a ready market for organic produce," adds
John Kibia, a green-bean producer. "In the future, maybe there will be a
very big market for organically grown products, and maybe when that time
comes, I'll be a beneficiary. One day, I'll benefit from it."

Not everyone agrees that organic farming is right for the continent most
frequently beset by food shortages and famine.

The biotechnology industry criticizes organic food as a rich person's luxury
and is touting increased yields from crops that are genetically modified to
thrive in African conditions.

While organic-farming techniques generally yield about 30 percent less food
per acre in developed countries, studies have shown the reverse in the Third
World. Overworked land benefits when organic techniques help return
nutrients to the soil.

George Acquaah, chairman of the agriculture department at Langston
University in Oklahoma, acknowledges that agricultural chemicals are
expensive and can harm the environment. But he adds that it's not easy for
many small-scale farmers to obtain enough livestock to produce the amount of
manure organic farming requires, nor is it a simple task to teach them the

"If you apply organic principles, and you take care of the soil in the
proper way, you can very much increase your yield," says Thomas Cierpka,
executive director of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural
Movements. "This is the most sustainable way, not only for the export
market, but also for food security."

Copyright © 2002 News World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.


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