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making farming pay

amirankenya

making farming pay

From big to small, making farming pay:Migori is a long way from Naivasha's famed flower highway. Farmers slave on stubborn, sterile lands using technology that has changed little since the agrarian revolution.
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Harvest is wrung from reluctant crops. Hunger and penury roam the land. Life is a daily chore.Contrast this with what is easily the epicentre of Kenya's horticulture, whose earnings for 2007 topped Sh70 billion. Farming is conducted at the click of a button.

Computer programmes determine how much water and fertiliser each plant will receive depending on humidity and other variables. Recycling and the use of a drip ensure waste is reduced.

The water-fertiliser ratios can be changed from a beach in Diani and there is always the option of growing the plants in a greenhouse, where everything, down to climate, is controlled.

Farming is science

It is this high-tech farming that has fortified Kenya's reputation as the biggest exporter of cut flowers to Europe. This farming is a science approach has spawned a generation of agronomists that are very much in demand in the region.

This army of knowledge workers is already stamping its imprint, its well-honed expertise very much evident in the setting up of flower farms in Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and lately, Ethiopia.

Pinhas Moskovich, managing director at Amiran Kenya, a firm whose 400-strong headcount includes about 20 agronomists, says his company has played a key role in this silent revolution that saw the creation of a multibillion shilling industry from dust.

Since we opened shop at independence, we have been a fixture in Kenyan horticulture. We started most of the farms as turnkey projects and stayed on as suppliers. We have built nine out of every 10 greenhouses in Kenya. We are able to provide seeds, agro-chemicals, fertilisers, irrigation and water filtration technology, among others, under one roof, he told Smart Company during an interview at the firms Old Airport North Road offices in Nairobi.

But for Mr Moskovich, Amirans biggest contribution has been the agricultural and technical know-how. The level of knowledge accumulated in flower farming, especially in the last two decades, is immense. We have touched many businesses and lives through training, he offers.

Having made its name in large-scale horticulture where its client roll includes Oserian, Homegrown and Sher Karuturi, Amiran is already rolling out an assault on an entirely different proposition this year: small-scale farmers. Such farmers have always been an integral part of the firms operations and have an entire department dedicated to their needs.

At the core of the Embakasi-based firm's latest strategic foray is an innovation it is calling the Amiran Farmer's Kit. The product, which is akin to a starter pack and retails at Sh35,000, comes with a drip irrigation system, a knapsack sprayer, seeds, fertilisers and agrochemicals.

The plan is to sell the units and accessories to groups of farmers and have experts from Amiran advise them during set-up and initial operations including marketing.

The farmers are expected to decide which crop to invest in, but the expectation is that they would have a food and a cash crop.

After the first season, and depending on the results, the group would then decide on whether to re-invest any earnings. The other key product in the scheme is mini-greenhouses targeted at areas like Mt Kenya, where farming is limited to a single season.

But why is Amiran targeting groups with a product that could just as easily be bought by individual farmers The first issue is affordability.

We have tried to keep the price as low as possible but it will be easier for farmers to buy as a group rather than individuals.

Secondly, this technology has great potential to change the lives of small-scale farmers, who have hitherto been ignored, but only if it is widely adopted, argued Gilad Millo, head of development at the firm.

Of course, wider adoption of the technology will result in greater earnings for the firm and build a greater and lasting relationship with the target market.

At the end of the day, this is a business. But what is heartening about this project is that we can do that while improving the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and the country's overall food security situation.

He is against the notion that corporate social responsibility (CSR) should not be driven by the profit motive and cites Amirans as a model for public-private partnerships (PPPs).

Migori could become the first site of this ambitious stab at improving small-holder farming. The firm is working with a 500-member women group in the district and following the recent acquisition of two kits and ongoing training, everything is on course for launch by end of February. The firm has identified similar groups in Western, Eldoret and other parts of the country.

For a business that has largely cut its teeth in supplying big name operatives with clear buying procedures, will Amiran summon the kind of flexibility necessary to give the project wings To Mr Moskovich, nothing much will change in the way Amiran does business, even with the new momentum towards small-scale farmers.

We are not re-inventing the wheel. We are simply deploying the same model we have used to serve the big players because it has served us well. We emphasize strong after-sales service and building enduring relationships with our customers.

The firm brushed off suggestions that its irrigation technology would be stolen and replicated. We have no such worries. We are best at what we do. This technology works and our suppliers are acknowledged the world on irrigation technology, said Mr Millo, alluding to the firms strong Israeli links.

Irrigation solutions

In many ways, Amiran which is 51 per cent-owned by British business mogul Sir Bernard Shreier's Balton CP, with the rest of the stake belonging to Israeli interests is largely a vendor of Israeli farming technology, representing several companies from that country.

Israel is famed for taming a tiny barren desert and turning it into lush farmland, feeding its people and being a major player in the export market through cutting-edge technology.

The group trades in nine African countries, with the Kenyan operation being the most successful. The other local subsidiary is Amiran Communications, which deals in telecommunications and security equipment.

When it comes to irrigation technology, Amiran parades products from Netafim, one of the global leaders in its category. Others Israeli firms whose products adorn Amiran's warehouses include Azrom (greenhouses), Makteshim Agan and Haifa Chemicals (agrochemicals), Amiad (water filtration), among others.

Alive to the financing challenges that are likely to constrain the venture, Amiran is already talking to a leading microfinance bank for farmers to get loans to buy the kit.