by Ejidiah Wangui
NAIROBI, Jan. 18 (Xinhua) -- There are two things that give Gerald Thambiri sleepless nights -- where to sell his produce and erratic weather.
Thambiri, a middle-aged banana farmer in the upper eastern Kenyan county of Meru, about 225 km from Nairobi, said while weather is a problem he can't stress so much over since it's a natural occurrence, he feels bad that he still has to rely on middlemen to sell his produce.
Though this eats into his profit, he would rather reach the market through middlemen than see his produce rot in the farm.
Delivering produce directly to the market is a dilemma many Kenyan farmers have had to put up with for long and most opt to sell through middlemen who grab up to three-quarters of their profit.
"I have been a farmer all my life. I know my bananas are mostly consumed in Nairobi, but I have never set foot there. I have always sold my produce through middlemen, which has been the only option available for many of us who don't have any means to transport produce to Nairobi," Thambiri told reporters during an interview on Friday.
Luckily he is likely to get rid of voracious middlemen if he chooses to enroll into a technology-based platform that sources fruits and vegetables from over 8,000 farmers across 20 regions in Kenya.
The platform delivers directly to over 5,000 vendors across Nairobi and its environs.
According to Daniel Ngugi, who works for the agricultural supply platform Twiga Foods, any farmer can sign up as a member as long as their produce meets stipulated quality standards and that the farm is located within the firm's sourcing regions.
Established in 2014, Twiga works to address gaps in the market of agricultural produce by providing an efficient selling place.
While farmers enjoy guaranteed markets, transparent pricing and advice from the firm, vendors get fair prices, free delivery and quality produce whose safety is assured and easily traceable.
"Farmers are very receptive to us. The advantage is we are able to treat their farming activity like a business. We give them consistent market, better prices and, on top of that, we provide transactional history," Ngugi said. "There is also added advantage of agronomy support from our experts."
Kenya loses up to 30 percent of agricultural produce to post-harvest losses between the farm and the market.
According to Ngugi, Twiga Foods sells approximately 100 tons of produce daily, a quantity set to go up as the firm plans to move the ordering burden to customers.
"In a few weeks' time, small grocery sellers will be able to order for supply from the comfort of their house and will be sure to find the order delivered at their selling point the following morning," said Ngugi.
If someone told Thambiri 13 years ago that he could use technology as a means to sell his bananas and carrots, it could have sounded like the joke of the year.
Up until 2005, it was considered a risky venture to invest in high capacity broadband in Kenya. People like Thambiri could never have imagined connecting with their clients online.
When Kenya built a high-capacity broadband through undersea cables, the cost of internet access went down, opening up a world of opportunities, and companies like Twiga Foods are taking advantage of this space to seal gaps in the country's agricultural supply chain.
Technology-enabled farming and distribution has the potential to create Kenya's next billionaires, with the right policies in place, observers say.
Noah Nasiali, a farmer who was recently awarded 100 million Kenyan shillings (1 million U.S. dollars) by Facebook for creating a platform that brings together farmers from across eight African countries where they discuss day-to-day issues in their farms, said lack of proper information such as prices at which to sell produce has been one of the problems preventing Kenya from being food secure.
Nasiali, who is the brain behind Hortlive AgriVentures, a one-stop shop for agricultural products, said he almost quit a few months into farming after he found himself stranded with ready crop he didn't know who to sell to.
His dilemma led him onto Facebook where he sought counsel from other farmers on where they sell their produce and at what prices. To his surprise, everyone who responded expressed similar concerns; they were either stuck with produce in their farms or were selling at throwaway prices to middlemen who strike at the right time.
Agritech start-ups help address many challenges farmers face, including access-to-market barriers, logistical challenges, as well as buyer power from large supermarkets that take up to one year before paying for produce supplied to them by farmers.