A seed company in Nakuru is giving smallholder farmers access to high value vegetable crops while connecting them to ripe export markets in a venture that is redefining smallholder farming in Kenya.
Simon Andys, the founder of Premier Seeds, is a trained agronomist who left his job in a local seed industry to breathe new life to smallholder farming after a wrong seed variety devastated the farmers he was serving. “I used to work very closely with the farmers in training them on good farm management practices and handling their grievances.
A seed variety which the company imported had been bred for different climatic conditions caused devastating damage to farmers producing near zero yields. It was heart breaking to see farmers lose resources and days’ worth of toil to something that could have been avoided. I had to do something about it,” Simon said. And he did. He left the company to start his own outfit that would correct the ills that had bedeviled the farming industry. Thus marked the birth of Premier Seeds.
At the helm of the seed company, Simon has worked with breeders outside the country to breed for him the most suitable varieties that adapt to local climatic and growing conditions. “The problem with our seeds is that we import those that have already been bred for overseas growing conditions which end up disappointing our farmers.
So I decided to partner with seed breeders in Netherlands. What I do is to first do a thorough analysis of the climatic and growing conditions identifying which conditions would produce the optimum yields. I then communicate the analysis to my breeders in Netherlands and explain to them the kind of seeds I would like to work on and the process starts,” said Simon.
Through such arrangements, Simon has managed to bring to the country, the fastest maturing tomato variety dubbed Tomato Premier F1 which takes on average 60 days to mature compared to existing varieties that take between 90 and 105 days. The variety is also accustomed to tough climatic conditions and has been bred to tolerate common tomato diseases. Its shelf life, another of its unique selling point, is 15 days compared to between seven and ten days for the other varieties. “It is a variety that has been bred with the local conditions in mind. Even when it is exposed to sunlight as it usually does especially when it is being sold by roadside and open market traders, it still can go for days without going bad,” Simon added.
Simon whose mantra is to deliver smallholder farmers from the yoke of overreliance on traditional crops is working with farmers in Bahati Constituency in Nakuru County to plant high value crops for the export market. He is currently working with a group of farmers in the farming of chives, a herb belonging to the onion family, that is enjoying huge demand in the export markets. The farmers who traditionally relied on maize and vegetables are now more than doubling yields and incomes with the chives venture. “At Premier Seeds we felt that if we were to involve farmers in the growth of these high value crops, we needed to move them from traditional way of doing things.
We needed them to own greenhouses. And because greenhouses appeared beyond the reach of many farmers, we have an arrangement with Chase bank that would finance the construction of greenhouses on credit, which farmers would repay using the proceeds from the sale of their produce. The model has been successful so far,” Simon said.
Simon has made it his business to train individual farmers and walk with them through the farming journey since most of them are making their first stint at greenhouse farming. “Again you have to factor in the fact that the crops they are growing, chives for example, are meant for the export market where buyers are very strict about growing conditions, so we have to train them on the specifics of farming for export for example when to spray the produce, how much they should spray, how to look out for pests among other farming practices,” he added.
The farmers are now earning over 5 Euros per kilo of chives which they will be harvesting after every 20-25 days.
Simon has also partnered with academic institutions like Egerton University – Agro Science Park who have been breeding high yielding and stress tolerant bean varieties dubbed Tasha, Chelarang and Ciankui for mass distribution. Under a contractual farming model, Simon connects the academic institutions with farmers who grow the beans on behalf of the institution.
Upon maturity the institution buys back the beans at market prices. “This has allowed the university to test how the new varieties perform in farms while mass producing the beans for distribution. Farmers on the other hand get firsthand experience with the new varieties and a guaranteed competitive market. This model has been key in lifting farmers from poverty,” Simon added.
Such steely determination and will to change farming’s modus operandi hasn’t gone unnoticed. Simon is a fellow of the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme (TEEP), a continental programme that recognizes vanguard entrepreneurs that are providing homegrown solutions to Africa’s problems.
The Tony Elumelu foundation has also funded Premier Seeds to advance the course of fighting hunger through various initiatives that the company is involved in with the farmers.
Simon believes a hunger free Kenya is possible. “Kenya is blessed with a beautiful climate and a very entrepreneurial people. It’s the few hiccups like lack of inputs for example the right seeds that, technical back up is holding us back. It is this gap that we have been trying to bridge. It is what keeps me awake at night. I hope for the day when every farmer’s efforts in the farm will always be rewarded. We can do it. It is possible,” Simon added.
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