News & Insights

Growth Opportunities in Kenya


Scott Knackstedt, Research Associate, Global Partnerships

 

I arrived in Kenya in late May, just as the rains were subsiding and the bright green stalks of young maize could just reach a zebra’s shoulder.  As a summer associate for Global Partnerships, my project was to research, assess and provide recommendations on a prospective new investment initiative in agriculture inputs.  Based out of Nairobi at GP’s Africa headquarters, I stayed in the Kilimani district, just north of the slums of Kibera, and a five-minute walk to the office each morning that involved passing informal fruit-sellers and thunderous diesel trucks as children in matching uniforms made their way to school.  On the weekends I traveled, with the goal to see as much of the country as I could.  I hiked in four national parks, ran with professional runners in Iten, went fishing off of Lamu Island, and ogled my fill of wild critters of all sizes while on safari.

 

‘Agriculture inputs’ is a broad category – fertilizer, improved seeds, irrigation, pest controls, and veterinary services, among others – and is demonstrably integral in boosting farm productivity for the smallholder farmer, leading to higher incomes and food security. Despite this, and quite surprisingly, very few smallholder farmers in East Africa use these inputs.  Irrigation rates are less than a tenth of the global average, less than 5 percent apply fertilizer, and only 11 percent of farmers use improved seeds.  Animal husbandry is no better, where a fifth of livestock are lost to diseases with known vaccines and treatments and the average cow produces only 35 percent of what the same breed produces in Europe.  There is a dearth of access to technical assistance – including information on the most effective way to grow maize – further deepening the challenges faced by the vast majority of farmers living in poverty.

 

I connected with those farmers to understand their needs and challenges, and met with social enterprises that are creating market sustainable solutions for the rural poor of East Africa, witnessing first-hand the pigeon-peas growing on a single hectare with five other crops, learning about ‘dipping’ livestock to prevent parasites, and speaking with dairy farmers about the diet of cattle.  I had the pleasure of eating French beans in the company of the farmer who grew them, handled worms crawling through coffee husks used for vermiculture, and came to know the ins-and-outs of cultivating Kenya’s primary staple: maize. Throughout it all, the experiences I witnessed, the details I learned, and the people I befriended engendered an awareness and familiarity with the agriculture industry that I never could have anticipated.

 

Speaking of maize, when cultivating it there is a dependable process to best ensure a bountiful harvest: 

 

  • First, one should prepare the land, plowing early – perhaps two or three times – and remove grasses and weeds that have taken advantage of your soil. 

  • Next, time the sowing properly, where it is essential that you plant early and in advance of the rains as yields are significantly reduced with late planting. 

  • Choose the right seeds for your local conditions:  length of the rainy season, altitude, and amount of nitrogen in the soil.  Take time to space the seeds properly (30 cm apart, ideally) and occasionally deposit two seeds in the same hole to buffer against anticipated losses from pests. 

  • If you have access to fertilizer, apply it accordingly at planting and again when your stalks are knee-height. 

  • Tend to your maize as it grows, weeding and watering, and come harvest, you and your family will be rewarded with a strong yield.

 

Just as I have seen how growing maize can be a deliberate and thoughtful process, so too is GP’s approach to ensure that the impact they deliver to the rural poor is sustainable, meaningful, and robust. My initiative research was the first step of GP’s investment process, plowing this arable landscape for new opportunities and determining which kernels are right for sprouting under the local conditions.  Now, having presented my work and delivered my findings, it is time for it to grow.  GP will till and tend this project, applying capital to fertilize those social enterprises that, like properly cultivated maize, are most likely to provide income and security to the lives of those that need it most.  In helping to grow better livelihoods, I have seen how Global Partnerships itself becomes a productive input in this patient yet promising cycle in agriculture in East Africa – the soil for hope, the sunshine for a brighter future.

 

Scott and fellow GP research associate, Pragya Dewan in Kenya.

Scott and fellow GP research associate, Pragya Dewan in Kenya.

Scott is a native of the northwest, growing up in Olympia and studying the physical sciences and languages at the University of Portland. Having spent over four years abroad throughout Asia, Europe, and now Africa (for this project), Scott was drawn to Global Partnerships as he has seen that supporting market-sustainable solutions is an effective tool to alleviate poverty and GP’s mission-driven approach was compelling, thoughtful, and time-tested. Scott has graduate degrees from the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and the University of Cambridge, where his research focused on the scientific narrative in development of central Africa. Most recently, Scott graduated from the University of Washington’s MBA program with an emphasis on finance and entrepreneurship. 

Maize growing on a small farmer in Iten, Kenya.
Maize growing on a small farmer in Iten, Kenya.

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