Black Affairs, Africa and Development

Africa should end poor farmer narrative, says agribusiness boss

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The world is increasingly looking to Africa to meet growing global food requirements. Foreign investment in the agricultural industry is growing in countries like Ethiopia, which are deemed to have high potential.

Mucai Kunyiha, managing director of Cooper K Brands

A 2013 World Bank report titled Growing Africa: Unlocking the Potential of Agribusiness states the continent has the potential to create a trillion-dollar food market by 2030.

“I think agriculture is definitely one of the biggest growth areas for Africa,” says Mucai Kunyiha, managing director of leading Kenya-based animal health company Cooper K-Brands.

Kunyiha says Africa has huge tracts of arable land, water and technology. What lacks, and is partly to blame for food insecurity in parts of the continent, is the right application of technology, the work ethic and vision to fully maximise the potential.

Africa could feed the world

Although some parts of Africa, Kenya included, are currently battling hunger and starvation, Kunyiha notes that Africa has the right ingredients needed to “feed other parts of the world, let alone feeding ourselves”.

“With better management Africa will be a global leader in food production. It is very possible,” he says. “If we look at Europe and other parts of Asia, the land is used to the maximum. Most of the new land available for agriculture globally is in Africa. This is the place it is going to happen. So it is about us knowing that demand and positioning ourselves.”

Originally from the UK, Cooper K-Brands started doing business in Kenya in 1906, targeting colonial farmers. The ownership of the company was transferred to local investors in 1990.

Cooper manufacturers a wide range of products including vaccines and supplements for livestock and poultry and fungicides, fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides for crops.

“Our customers are mostly commercially minded farmers because they understand the input compared with the output.”

Kunyiha attributes the company’s more than 100 years of success to innovation, strong brands, farmer connections built over decades and commitment by the firm’s leadership.

“Our corporate goal is enabling Africa to be a global leader in food production.”

Kunyiha reckons that Africa can easily multiply its production if famers adopt better agricultural practices, governments adopt better policies and infrastructure is improved to open up potential areas for farming.

“We can double, even quadruple our production.”

An end to the poor farmer narrative

Governments, and society in general, should also stop viewing farmers as “poor people”. Kunyiha argues that the tag ‘poor farmer’ has become a “permanent stamp” and it affects how governments and other stakeholders relate to African farmers.

“That thing of looking at farmers as poor people has killed a lot of agricultural development in Africa. As long you are seen to be poor, you are not seen as a participant. If you view farmers as poor, we will always think of what we can give them and not what they can produce,” says Kunyiha. “I think there is a lot of opportunity and there are so many farmers doing very well.”

Kunyiha cites the case of a young man he met recently who quit his job distributing bread in Nairobi for KSh. 200 (US$2) a day, relocated to his semi-arid rural home in eastern Kenya, and started farming.

“In the last season of tomatoes he made KSh. 2m ($23,200),” says Kunyiha. “When it rains he collects water and stores it. He has adopted an irrigation system that does not waste water. He also keeps cows for the dung that he uses as fertiliser. It was amazing looking at what he is doing in a very, very dry area.”

Identifying new opportunities

Although it built its name in animal-related products, Cooper recently diversified into the crop market.

“We have built a unique distribution system across the country. We have got 13 distribution points serving about 5,000 shops of which about 80% are agrovets and therefore sell veterinary products and agrochemicals. So we decided to leverage on the distribution system. Crop was definitely a nice fit… and we are trying to grow the crop portfolio.”

Kunyiha reckons poultry is “a growth market” in Kenya citing the expanding middle class and popularity of chips and chicken outlets.

“There is growing demand for chicken,” he says. “The population is growing… and it is urbanising. One thing with urban people is that they have more cash. In Kenya it is not fish and chips [that is popular], it is mostly chips and chicken.”

He notes that Cooper K-Brands sees the poultry business as “a big opportunity going forward”. The company is focusing on producing vaccine and nutrition products that will help farmers manage diseases and ensure that their poultry attains the standard 1.2kgs in 36 days as opposed to 42 days as is common in Kenya.

“Here you find people losing 10%-20% of their flock and that is expensive. You can’t afford to do that. The main things are hygiene and nutrition.”

Overcoming hurdles

One of the challenges Cooper K-Brands faces is dealing with multiple levies charged by Kenya’s 47 counties. Devolution kicked off in Kenya last year, creating 47 counties which have powers to impose taxes.

“When our truck goes to Mombasa (on the Kenyan coast) we have to pay four counties. We have a truck that is branded so we have to pay the counties for advertising. These charges are so many. Some counties even charge you for entry.”

Kunyiha adds that as most of Kenya’s polytechnics transform into universities, the pool of people with technical skills – who are badly needed in the industry – is shrinking. Accessing well trained and experienced personnel to support its regional business is also a challenge.

“We are trying to grow in Africa and we have opened up in Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. We need human resource to work there. It has been a bit of a challenge to do work in those countries.”

Growing with the market

He explains that “Kenya is a bit sophisticated in the dairy industry” in terms of market development and the chain of distribution. However, in neighbouring countries, the market is not yet fully commercialised.

“The [founders of Cooper] who came here in 1906 did not come because milk production was high. They came and grew with the market. So our approach is to grow with those markets as urbanisation increases, the middle class continues to grow and demand for food goes up.”

Cooper K-Brands is keen to expand into Ethiopia where it sees great potential. However, Kunyiha is worried about the language barrier, the different culture and government control in some industries.

“Ethiopia has 80m people and is one of the fastest growing economies in the region. They have the largest livestock population in Africa although the productivity is not that good. So there is a lot of opportunity. However, having said that, Ethiopia is a huge mountain to climb unlike other East African countries.”

 

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