Are there options to the sugarcane plantation economy in western Kenya? Or is the idea of weaning farmers from sugarcane as simplistic as someone argued recently?
In thinking about these questions, I am struck that we are dealing with an absolute resignation to the totalising assumption that there is no alternative to sugarcane farming in western Kenya. Fortunately, the numbers of those who hold this view keeps reducing, thanks to the persisting exploitation of sugarcane farmers.
Conversely, the number of those who see the alternatives is increasing. There are two advantages to this changing scenario. The first is that if we have more people weaning themselves off the plantation economy, the need to negotiate a better contract between farmers and companies will become urgent. I see this happening soon.
The second is that western Kenya will become a diverse agricultural zone, one in which sugarcane growing is one among the many agricultural engagements people undertake. And there are people in the region, admittedly few, who are pioneering in this direction.
Pamela Muyeshi, the proprietor of Amaica Restaurant, is one example. She pioneered the Amaica initiative in November, 2006 to provide authentic Kenyan food to her clientele. She has worked hard to create that clientele by catering to and also changing tastes in favour of local Kenyan dishes. She continues to expand the businesses to accommodate more Kenyan foods.
Like every business, Pamela is interested in making money out of her business. She is creating a different skill in the hotel industry by encouraging people to grow traditional food, prepare and package it for wider consumption.
As such, she has a chain of organised women groups she has mobilised out of her own initiative who grow and supply traditional foods and rear domestic livestock. Mostly located in western Kenya, these farmers have a reasonable pay day every two weeks. Compare this to sugarcane farmers whose payday comes once after every two years.
Pamela has a supply challenge. When demand is optimum at her restaurants along Peponi Road or at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, where her latest branch is located, she struggles to get enough kienyeji chicken and vegetables to meet the demand.
She also lacks properly trained people to process food in traditional styles. Our local training institutions have simply ignored this as a niche area of training. Amaica has to re-train every new employee.
Take note that at Amaica, no food is cooked using cooking oil except chapati. In other words, Pamela sells the authenticity in her food which can be detected in the taste, aroma and delivery of service.
Amaica convinces me that Western Kenya is a diverse and fertile place, one that can effectively be the food basket of the country and region.
The region could lead in the supply of traditional vegetables namely lisutsa, lisebebe, likhubi, tsisaka, emiro, and omurere. All these are on offer at Amaica.
It could also supply dried fish, meat, kienyeji chicken and quail. The business aspect of it does not rest in how many people already consume these foods, but in changing the taste of those who might start enjoying these delicacies and eat healthy.
Most people tend to see only maize and beans as alternative to sugarcane, but the range of alternatives are numerous and well paying.
Finally, there are collaboration opportunities here for university departments of home economic, sports and dietetics and economics.
Economists should conceptualise the comparative advantages of such an investment, sports and dietetics would initiate study programmes that enlighten Kenyans on healthy living and eating while those in home economics re-train their graduates to grow this new industry and appreciate the dietary advantages of traditional cooking.
The model is there at Amaica Restaurant for us to see.
Godwin Murunga is Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi
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