Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sokopepe issue 3: Farm records for improved productivity

By Bob Aston
We are pleased to present issue 3 of Sokopepe Newsletter. The issue is a joint effort between Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN) and Sokopepe Ltd.
The end of March 2017 marked the end of a successful roll-out phase of the Farm Records Management Information System (FARMIS) innovation by Sokopepe Ltd in the nine Sub Counties of Meru. This followed a pilot phase in five sub counties in Meru in 2014-2015.
Sokopepe issue 3 newsletter
The past 11 months has proven that farmer-serving agencies are able to leverage on the digital record-keeping platform to reach farmers with various services and products.
Our supportive farmers during the roll-out phase made us appreciate that farm records could transform their lives. It has been a humbling experience hearing and seeing the various micro-innovations that they undertake.
Our networks of Production Information Agents (PIAs) have played a pivotal role in ensuring successful completion of the roll-out phase of FARMIS innovation. Providing record keeping data, demand-driven extension services, boosting farmers’ access to information through the PIAs has helped many farmers to realise increased productivity and profitability.
More farmers are now able to use the record keeping data to know which crops are more profitable. This is helping them to make right farming decisions, as they are able to know the crops that are “eating” into their profits.
We are now working to ensure that we launch our second Agriculture Production Report (APR) next month. We hope that through the report, the government and other agencies would be able to obtain reliable, regular, and high-quality data on the status of agriculture in Meru County.
We hope that the aggregated FARMIS data will help to identify trends, which will support appropriate decision-making, while the farm level data will continue to determine the credit worthiness of farmers.
It is our hope that readers will find the third issue of Sokopepe Newsletter as informative and that it would give them a deeper understanding of what we are doing. You can download a copy of the newsletter here.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Nurse with a passion for agribusiness

Thomas Ngaruiya
In Muiriene village in the heart of Meru County, Mrs. Doris Mutirithia’s 1-acre farm has since 2010 helped to support her family by paying school fees for her two children through the proceeds received from the sale of farm produce.
In a good season, the government nurse at Kibaranyaki Hospital in Imenti Central makes more than 100,000 from the sale of cabbages, capsicum, carrots, or potatoes. There are times when she takes her produce to Gakoromoni market in the morning before heading to work. She divides her time between her profession, family and her agribusiness.
Doris Mutirithia inspecting her cabbages

“Farming is the only business that can allow me enough time with my family, profession and still serve humanity by providing quality farm produce," says Mrs. Mutirithia.
Initially, it was hard for her to know whether she was making a profit of loss. She formalised her farm records when she adopted Sokopepe’s Farm Records Management Information System (FARMIS) in 2016. A neighbour who had adopted the innovation recommended it to her as an easy way to manage her agricultural enterprises.
She has been doing crop rotation on a three-acre farm to improve soil stability and control pests and diseases. Like many farmers in the region, lack of market information and inadequate information on best agricultural practices used to be a challenge. Sokopepe has since addressed this.
She says that Sokopepe has enabled her to have better control of her economic destiny. Although she spends most of her time working at Kibaranyaki Hospital and with her family, she always ensures that she spends a bit of time at her farm.
“Sokopepe has helped me to embrace agribusiness. I am able to track all my enterprises and farm expenses,” said Mrs. Mutirithia.
Last year she received her first profit and loss statement after selling cabbages. She is now able to use record keeping data to know which crops are more profitable. This has helped her to make right farming decisions. She plans to venture into pig farming using the profits received from the sale of farm produce.
Doris Mutirithia preparing onions for storage
Each season she is able to know which crops are eating into her “profits” and which ones are more profitable. FARMIS has allowed her to evaluate her income and expenses. This has eased her decision-making process.
“I can now account for every expense that I incur in the farm. Initially i never kept farm records and I could never tell how much I was getting from the sale of farm produce,” said Mrs. Mutirithia.
She said that the record keeping data has made her learn from her past mistakes. She now only invests in profitable farm enterprises.
Sokopepe has assigned her a Production Information Agent (PIA) who visits her farm once a week. Besides record keeping training, the PIA also provides her with extension services, market information, and linkages.
She has urged other professionals to embrace farming as a way of investing their money. She also urged other farmers to formalise their records to improve their economic gains and increase profit.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Banked farmers learning how to manage risks

By Bob Aston
Access to financial services is about to provide an opportunity for Kairiri Forest Users and Conservation Community Based Organisation (CBO) in Timau area of Meru County to deal with crop failure. Most of the members had contemplated quitting farming this year after the crop failure.
Sokopepe has been supporting the CBO to increase productivity and profitability of its members. This season, Sokopepe linked them to a micro finance institution to enable them to receive credit.
Members of the CBO going through Sokopepe's Farm Books

Linking the CBO to Times U Sacco Society Ltd has made the members to be among the few-banked farmers in the Country. The Sacco has a Kilimo Bora Loan, which is ideal for farmers due to low interest charged. For close to 5 weeks now the Sacco has been building their financial literacy and capability.
Already 30 members of the group have each paid a Ksh 200 for registration and are now saving Ksh 200 per week. Soon they will be able to receive Kilimo Bora Loan. The farmers can borrow up to 5 times the amount saved.
The Kilimo Bora loan attracts a 7.5 percent interest rate. The repayment is after four months when the farmers have harvested. The 74 member CBO are now planning to cultivate their combined 30-acre farm.
Mr. Bernard Mureithi, a Production Information Agent (PIA) at Sokopepe said that farm Records Management Information System (FARMIS) help financial institutions to know whether farmers are capable of managing risks.
 “The farmers are able to track all their agribusiness enterprises and expenses incurred. This will ensure effective use of Kilimo Bora loans,” said Mr. Mureithi.
Mr. David Kabuari, Kairiri Forest Users, and Conservation CBO Chairman said that access to credit has always been a challenge. Financial institutions always deny them loans due to lack of proper farm records.
“Most financial institutions are always reluctant to lend to us. We are glad that Sokopepe linked us to a micro finance institution. We are now capable of accessing and managing credit," said Mr. Kabuari.
He said that Sokopepe has been training the CBO on record keeping, best agricultural practices, market information and linkages, and conservation agriculture.
“The training has equipped us with agribusiness skills. The knowledge is helping our members to track their agribusiness enterprises and expenses. This will help us to use the Kilimo Bora Loan which we expect to receive soon,” said Mr. Kabuari.
Members of the CBO being trained on financial literacy
Mr. Mureithi has been visiting the group every week to check on the progress of their crops. He has also been assisting individual members in filling their farm book.
He said that Sokopepe has enabled the CBO members to plan their farm enterprises. They are able to know the enterprises that ‘are eating’ into their profits.
The CBO has been engaging in forest management and conservation of Timau Forest for 9 years. The CBO has a Forest Management Agreement with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). Through the agreement, KFS issued the group with 1.5-acre land for farming.
The group is playing an important role in forest restoration and agroforestry. This is helping to restore healthy, diverse, productive, and sustainable land-use systems.
The group has integrated apiculture with other farming activities. The CBO's 19 beehives are helping in pollination of plants, trees, fruits, and crops. This ensures the improvement of yields as well as promoting environmental conservation.
Mr. Kabuari noted that apiculture enables them to get income from honey, bees wax, pollen, propolis, bee colonies, bee brood, queen bees, and package bees.
The CBO also owns a tree nursery that produces at least 4,000 indigenous tree seedlings and around 3,000 exotic species. The CBO has been planting trees in Timau Forest, individual farms, education facilities, riparian and government land.
They have been donating seedlings to Water Resource Users Association (WRUA), schools, hospitals, and government departments. They are also selling to individuals. Exotic trees retail between Ksh 10-15 while indigenous trees retail at Ksh 25-50.
Difficulty in accessing credit facilities has hindered the productivity of most smallholder farmers. Sokopepe is keen on financial inclusion, as it would ensure increased income for farmers.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Be bold for change: Women making a difference

By Bob Aston
Today Sokopepe joins the World in celebrating the International Women Day 2017. This year’s theme is “Be Bold for Change.” The annual celebration is marked on March 8. This year’s celebration not only honours women who took the step to be bold for change, but also challenges everyone to take calculated and intentional bold steps to effect change in their own small way.
Sokopepe is recognising and celebrating some of the bold women who are forging a better working world for others. Sokopepe has taken a bold step to effect change in their own small way by intentionally promoting women inclusion in staffing patterns, thus a workforce comprising of 62 percent women. These women have taken steps to be bold for change and are trying to ensure a more inclusive gender equal world.
Women learning about Sokopepe during a training in Meru County
The countless acts of courage and determination carried out by these women have significantly contributed in empowering smallholder farmers in Meru County.

Ms. Gladwellah Muthoni, A production Information Agent (PIA) at Sokopepe has been one of the most passionate extension officers at the social enterprise. She is a keen believer in ensuring that women have equal access to productive resources. She believes that this not only ensures that women increase agricultural productivity but also have better control of their economic destinies.

She has been leading in the provision of record keeping data, demand-driven extension services, boosting farmer’s access to information and supporting farmers in documenting their innovations and experiences.
“I am always eager to help women farmers pull down the barriers that they face. Women play a critical role in food production and in achieving food security,” said Ms. Muthoni.
On her part, Fridah Gatwiri, 26, a Production Information Agent (PIA) at Sokopepe and a leading youth farmer has been an inspiration to many aspiring farmers.
She has been training farmers on record keeping, best agricultural practices, market information and linkages, conservation agriculture and the importance of high-value crops. When she is not at work, she is busy tending to her 3 acres leased farm.
“Over the years I have worked through my weaknesses and imperfections. I am now proud of every step that I take in fulfilling my goals in life,” said Ms. Gatwiri.
“I always try as much as possible to make a change in women farmers. Hearing from farmers and knowing that I helped them make an informed decision always makes me proud,” said Ms. Gatwiri.
She is always eager to encourage Youth to embrace agriculture instead of searching for elusive white-collar jobs.
On her part, Ms. Judy Nkatha, Partnership and Linkages officer at Sokopepe has carved a niche in seeking for partnerships that are helping to develop and unlock services downstream in value chains.
Her dedication in seeking for partnerships has seen Sokopepe partner with seven agricultural service/product providers. This has helped to enhance good agricultural practices and to provide economical, effective, and sustainable agricultural inputs to smallholder farmers.
Ms. Fridah Gatwiri, a smallholder farmer based in Meru County inspecting her crops
“I always believe that tackling barriers that hold back the productivity of women farmers could usher in broader economic growth,” said Mr. Nkatha.
Ms. Nkatha is always at the forefront in ensuring that women farmers are able to access and repay loans without relying on their husbands, and women are able to choose farming enterprises and make informed farming decisions.
On her part, Ms. Roseline Ngusa, a Co-Director at Sokopepe has been at the social enterprise since its inception in 2014. Through Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN), she learned about challenges faced by marginalised communities and when the opportunity to be an agripreneur arose, she seized it.
Since then she has been making a social impact by working with smallholder farmers by addressing the lack of accurate production, marketing and operational data in agriculture. Her passion in mentoring female staff at Sokopepe and enthusiasm in ensuring smallholder farmers embrace record keeping and increase productivity and profitability is always palpable when she is talking about Agribusiness.
“I am an accountant with a passion for agripreneurship. Given my professional background, I know the importance of records and am sure those records can make a difference in farmer’s lives and they are able to increase productivity and profitability,” said Ms. Ngusa.
She has taken a keen interest in financial inclusion. She has been at the forefront in ensuring that Sokopepe is leveraging on existing relationships within the value chains to ensure farmers access financial services sustainably while unbanked farmers enjoy new possibilities.
“I am determined to ensure that we continue working with financial service providers to build financial literacy for smallholder farmers as well as their financial capabilities,” said Ms. Ngusa.
The disparity between women and men characterises most spheres of society. Giving women an equal opportunity and allowing them to reach their full potential is important in ensuring an inclusive gender equal society.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Kenyan farmers tackle crop failure by swapping seeds for seedlings

By Caroline Wambui
RUMURUTI, Kenya – Dressed in a navy blue sweater and a grey pair of trousers, David Mwangi bends to examine a bunch of ripe tomatoes.
In this central region of Kenya, farmers’ crops struggle to germinate because of irregular and unpredictable rainfall and temperatures, leading to high crop failure. But some farmers are now turning to seed propagation, whereby their seeds are grown in a “nursery” in a greenhouse before the farmers transplant the seedlings at home.
Unlike planting seeds manually in the ground, growing them in plastic trays in greenhouses enables a better control of conditions like temperatures and shading.

Farmer examining seedlings on his farm in Rumuruti, Kenya. TRF/Caroline Wambui
Justus Murage, a farmer who buys vegetable seedlings himself, explained that “the seeding process at the greenhouse is automated: machines fill the trays with soil, make holes in the soil, plant the seeds and waters them before releasing them to await germination at the greenhouses.”
The trays are filled with peat moss, a highly compact and absorbent matter that makes it easier for seeds to grow.
Mwangi and Murage are among thousands of farmers across the country who get their seeds “propagated” in the greenhouse before transplanting them, paying about 1 Kenyan shilling per seedling depending on the type of crop.
The seeds can take as little as less than a month to mature in the greenhouse, instead of at least 5-7 weeks when planted manually, according to Okisegere Ojepat, a horticulture expert.
Murage added that the protected environment of the greenhouse produces not only higher quality seedlings, but uniform ones.
“The more uniform seedlings are, the easier it is to plan when to harvest them, as they all mature at the same time.”
“No seedling will grow taller or shorter than the other, as they all grow in optimal conditions.”
Mwangi agrees, saying that “I can now plan my farming strategy as I know for how long the seeds will be at the greenhouse, when I can transplant them on my farm and when I can harvest them – which wasn’t the case when I manually planted seeds myself.”
The seedlings grow faster when transplanted at the farm, meaning Mwangi now has four harvesting seasons in one year – instead of three previously – allowing him to plant and sell more crops.
Ojepat said that propagation ensures a germination rate of up to 97% – compared to 40-50% previously – ensuring stronger seedlings with a big root mass which lowers their chances of withering during transplant.
Propagation is also helping farmers cut on costs. “Since I’ve been using the technology, I’ve saved about 25,000 Kenyan shillings per harvesting season (three months) by using less labour and experiencing less crop failure,” said Mwangi.
He used to employ three people to till the land, form a seedbed, plant the seeds and transplant them – and now only needs to employ one to transplant the seedlings.
Article originally published at Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED).

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Leveraging on partnerships that helps farmers access biological pest control

By Bob Aston
Sokopepe and Kenya Biologics Ltd on February 10, 2017, at Methodist Bio-Intensive Agriculture Training Centre in Meru County strengthened their partnership when the Kenya Biologics Ltd took the Sokopepe team through Trainer of Trainers (TOT) on innovative natural solutions for pest control.
The two companies signed a partnership agreement in December 2016 to help in adoptions of Tuta Absoluta kit and farm records management information System (FARMIS).In addition, the partnership is helping farmers in Meru County to increase productivity and profitability.
Mr. Willis Okwacho, Mount Kenya Region Sales, and Marketing Manager at Kenya Biologics Ltd said that the Bio-Pesticide producing Company supports sustainable food production by providing green, safe, and cost effective farm inputs.
Sokopepe staff being shown how to use TUTRACK lure

He trained the Sokopepe team on use of TUTRACK innovation, which monitors and controls Tuta Absoluta (Tomato leafminer). Tuta absoluta is a tomato moth that can cause 100 percent loss in tomatoes. The moth hides inside leaves and develops fast resistance in hot climates. It has proven challenging to control.
The pest usually affects both tomatoes in green houses and open fields. Without proper care, a farmer can experience 100 percent yield loss due to Tuta absoluta.
Willis mentioned that the TUTRACK lure contains pheromones, which attract the male Tuta absoluta moth. Once the male is exposed to the pheromone, it follows the source and is led into a sticky trap. This helps to control the pest’s ability to continue multiplying. The mass trapping system consists of TUTRACK lure and a trap. The innovation is unique as the lure is designed for the Kenyan market.
He said that an acre requires 10 TUTRACK traps. The traps are placed not more than 40 cm above ground level as the Tuta Absoluta moth flies low. Farmers can opt for the delta-shaped TUTRACK or its water trap version or a combination of both.
“Effectiveness of chemical control is limited due to insect's nature of damage as well as its rapid capability of development of insecticide resistant strains,” said Mr. Okwacho.
He said that Tuta absoluta eggs are just 0.5 mm long. They live on the underside of young leaves or on the stems. A female can lay 260 eggs. The larvae usually feed upon tomato plants. They produce large galleries in leaves. They burrow in stalks and consume apical buds and green and ripe fruits. They are most destructive at larvae stage.
Sokopepe staff being shown how to manage white flies using yellow sticky trap
Symptoms of Tuta Absoluta include puncture marks on the surface where the larvae have entered, abnormal shape, exit holes, rot due to secondary infective agents and frass produced at stem nodes where larvae have bored into the stem.
Mr. Okwacho also took the Sokopepe team through use of yellow traps that manage white flies and blue traps for thrips.
Ms. Judith Nkatha, Partnership, and Linkages Officer at Sokopepe said that through the partnership farmers are able to access affordable and efficacious pesticides that do not harm the environment or leave any residue on crops.
She said that Sokopepe is leveraging on partnerships to develop stronger value chains and systems that lead to improved productivity and increased income for smallholder farmers.
She noted that through this partnership farmers are reducing chemical residues on crops, improve pest control, and improve on their farm record keeping data. She said that Sokopepe is happy with the increased extension support by the Kenya Biologics Ltd in urging more farmers to adopt biological pest control.
“We will always embrace partners who bring biological solutions to farmers. We hope this will reduce levels of chemical residues in farm produce,” said Ms. Nkatha.
On his part, Mr Okwacho said that the partnership has helped to increase adoptions of the Tuta Absoluta kit, yellow and the blue traps.
Support for the two companies is by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Feed the Future Kenya Innovation Engine (KIE).
Biological controls are ecologically sustainable and safe crop protection solutions. They are selective to the pest problem and provide a safer environment for farmers, consumers and the environment
According to the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), the government of Kenya has put in place elaborate trapping program and pest management that includes integrated pest management, use of traps, introduction of biological control agents and imposition of quarantine in affected areas.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Sokopepe Newsletter: Enhancing informed farmer decision making

By Bob Aston
We are pleased to present issue 2 of Sokopepe Newsletter. The issue is a joint effort between Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN) and Sokopepe Ltd.
This is an exciting third year for Sokopepe. We welcomed 2017 with a strong commitment and enthusiasm. This year promises to bring a lot of success for Sokopepe owing to the magnificent work that we did in 2016.
Sokopepe Newsletter issue 2
For close to 2 years, Sokopepe with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Feed the Future Kenya Innovation Engine (KIE) has been piloting the Farm Records Management Information System (FARMIS) innovation to 5 and then 9 Sub-counties in Meru County.
Our FARMIS innovation provides the evidence base that farmers need to make an informed decision. Our dream is to make FARMIS the planning tool for county governments in Kenya and work with partners to create a regional ‘ food map’ as part of the agriculture transformation.
We believe that improving food security requires us all to join forces. We want partners and farmers to believe with us. Join us and let us work together to make a difference in farmers lives.
We believe that FARMIS data when aggregated overtime and wider usage offers potential of growing a big database which will aid the Government and value chain actors in designing interventions that would improve crop production as well as develop appropriate solutions to meet the peripheral challenges that hamper food production.
The change of farmer attitude and in embracing record keeping is what motivates us. We are glad that farmers are realizing the importance of record keeping in agribusiness.
Our phenomenal team in Meru County has started the year on a high note. It is an incredible feeling to know that our team is still eager to work with farmers and ensure that they use farm records to increase productivity and profitability.
It is our hope that readers will find the 2nd issue of Sokopepe Newsletter as informative and that it would give them a deeper understanding of what we are doing. You can download a copy of the newsletter here.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Home-grown Kenyan solar farm powers computers - and protects girls

By Benson Rioba
OLOSHO-OIBOR, Kenya - When the first few residents of this village in the Ngong hills installed solar panels, nearly a decade ago, the only aim was to power their own homes, as their town had no connection to the national power grid.
But today the community, south of Nairobi in the Rift Valley, is buzzing with solar and wind energy, which powers everything from the dispensary and church to shops, homes and even a rescue centre for girls fleeing child marriage and the threat of female genital mutilation.
Residents say they banded together to buy the shared energy system themselves, recognising that the substantial upfront cost would create benefits for years to come. Those now include everything from vaccines that can now be kept cold at the dispensary to solar-powered pumping of water.
"Before we started this solar farm, people from this village used to travel to Ngong town, which is 17 kilometers away, to get basic services and goods such as a photocopy or a haircut. This used to inconvenience us greatly since you had to part with a tidy sum," said Simon Parkesian, the manager of the community's solar farm.

Wind turbines and solar panels provide power in Olosho-Oibor,Kenya. TRF/Benson Rioba
In 2009, some residents of Olosho-Oibor, impressed with a first couple of private solar panels installed in the community, decided they wanted panels of their own - but many people could not afford them.
So a group of community members began contributing cash - 10 dollars a month - until they had enough to buy a set of larger solar panels that could serve many nearby homes.
They then approached the U.N. Industrial Development Organization for technical help in installing their system. Today the 125-member energy cooperative has raised $4,900 for panels - installed on poles around the community and on rooftops - and installed two small wind turbines as well.
The community also has a 10-kilowatt diesel generator as a backup in periods when both sunshine and wind fall short, but that is used only occasionally, Parkesian said.
Lydia Mboyo, one of those receiving power from the community energy farm, said having lights in the evening has helped her children study and allowed her to run her small retail shop at night.
She now is making plans to expand her shop and purchase a refrigerator to store perishable food and drinks.
"I am also a member of a women's group that makes and sells beaded ornaments abroad, and with lighting we have been able to store our business records in computers. We also listen to the radio for entertainment while beading," Mboyo said.
Parkesian said access to power also has spurred creation of a community information and communications technology (ICT) centre that has trained more than 40 people in basic computer skills, and that now offers photocopying and printing services.
The centre also allows people to charge their mobile phones, which once had to be switched off to save power when not being used to make calls.
As well, the renewable energy network is powering a centre for vulnerable girls fleeing early marriage and female genital mutilation - both problems common in the area, Parkesian said.
"The power grid has initiated many projects in the community but the most important project is the girls' rescue center that houses close to 80 vulnerable girls," he said. The centre, opened in 2012, uses renewable energy to light its dormitories and classrooms.
Jackline Mwendo, a nurse at Olosho-Olbor dispensary, said her facility has been able to offer vaccine services since it got power to provide refrigeration.
The dispensary's water supply has also improved as a result of using solar-powered pumps, she said, though she is still hoping for additional power to light maternal delivery rooms at night.
Parkesian said the cost of maintaining the renewable mini-grid has been significant, and community members have needed to contribute $5 a month for continuing access to power to help pay those costs.
Members of the energy cooperative have been trained to repair and replace worn-out parts of wind turbines and solar panels, he said. But many repairs require technical knowledge not available in the village, which increases costs and can lead to the system not working for short periods.
Running the community's diesel generator to provide back-up lighting at night costs $10 per day, he said.
Leah Kaguara, the Africa director for Energy 4 Impact, a non-governmental organisation that supports energy access in off-grid communities, said Olosh-Oibor's model of communities pulling together to invest in renewable energy should be encouraged, in part to overcome the technology's high upfront costs.
Access to energy is key to eradicating extreme poverty in areas where people still rely on firewood or kerosene for energy, she said.
One key to making community renewable energy systems work, she added, is that people should continue to pay at least a small amount for the power they receive, including to support maintenance costs.
Article originally published at Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED).
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