13 challenges to expect as a seedling producer in Kenya


Agribusiness is turning out to be one of the most lucrative fields in the modern world. In Kenya, more than 13.7 million youth (or an estimated 35.4% of the country’s total population) were already in agribusiness by 2014 according to a World Bank report. One beautiful aspect of this sector, which I cannot forget to mention is that it has numerous sub-niches. This means nearly anyone can find something to do for money in the agribusiness industry. Seedling product is just one of those many niches and it’s quickly gaining popularity in Kenya.

Traditionally, seedling producers were roadside sellers that owned small or no professionally-managed nurseries. The few large-scale nurseries available in those past days were operated by NGOs like women groups, private sector groups, schools, and other learning institutions like colleges. However, things are changing fast with young, educated Kenyans venturing into this small but potentially profitable niche. Moving into the future, we expect to see more and more youth-owned nurseries coming up. For young Kenyans looking to venture into seedling production, there are several potential hurdles and bottlenecks to consider.

I recently started a small seedling production business –an investment that has opened my eyes to some of the trickiest issues you may have to deal with as a nursery operator. So, I dedicate this blog to every fellow youth who has a vision of venturing into the agribusiness industry with a specific focus on seedling production. My coverage of the challenges to expect as a seedling producer in Kenya not only draws from personal experiences but also leverages findings from my extensive research on problems affecting seedling producers and nursery operators in Kenya.

Inaccessibility to quality seeds

s a large-scale seedling producer, you need to have access to quality seeds. When I talk about quality seeds, I mean seeds that have specific desirable characteristics such as high germination potential. Seeds are basic input requirements for a farmer and inaccessibility to quality seeds could have significant negative implications on the success of your seedling production business.

Unfortunately, in Kenya, seed supply is highly unpredictable. Even trusted suppliers like Kenya Seed Company LTD have been accused of supplying quality seeds. That’s why you should consider a variety of alternatives when deciding where to buy seeds for your seedling production business in Kenya. Some of the renowned seed sellers to consider in Kenya are Kenya Seed Company LTD, Kenya Highland Seeds (rebranded as Royal Seeds), Simlaw Seeds, Syngenta Kenya, Freshco Seeds Kenya, Amiran Kenya LTD, East African Company LTD, Premier Seeds LTD, Elgon Kenya LTD, and Savan Seeds.

Lack of customers or market

The lack of market is another big challenge for Kenyan seedling producers and there are numerous contributors to this problem. The major one, however, is that not many Kenyans are willing to spend money on seedlings despite the fact that seedlings are generally very cheap (as low as KSH.5 for some types of crops or trees). Additionally, I see a big knowledge gap in terms of understanding alternative species. This lack of knowledge prevents farmers from buying alternative seedlings, which would otherwise become more profitable for them than the types they already know.

Even worse is the fact that most Kenyans don’t love searching for new information on issues unrelated to politics and other trending social issues. That’s why I agree with Gilbert Bor’s claim that ignorance is the key cause of food insecurity in Kenya. But that’s not the only cause of low demand for nursery products in Kenya. There is the challenge of free distribution of seedlings by some government bodies and NGOs. For example, as part of their tree planting operation, the Kenya Forest Service regularly issues free mature seedlings to farmers across the country.

I am not refuting the significance of this initiative, but from the business perspective, giving out free seedlings turns out to be a serious barrier to the progress of the seedling production business. The damage KFS is doing is that it forms a tradition were farmers just want to receive free seedlings instead of buying. In the long run, seedling producers end up with only a handful of people willing to buy their products. In other words, the issuance of free seedlings kills the seedling production business, and thus, contributes to unemployment.

Environmental issues/ ecological factors

Environmental factors have huge impacts on nursery production and farming in general. If you’re going to invest in a geographical area with an unpredictable amount of rainfall as is the case in most parts of Kenya, then be prepared to deal with moderate to severe water scarcity. In addition to water problems, there are other naturally occurring abiotic and biotic constraints to watch out including crop pests/weeds/diseases, poor soils, and unstable temperature.

These factors have the potential to reduce the growth of seedlings. Also equally impactful on agroecosystems and the viability of agriculture are soil erosion, environmental degradation, water depletion, nutrient mining, pollution, and the extent of climate change among others.

Lack of support

If you are going to succeed as a seedling producer in Kenya, you will need to partner with various farmer-support organizations. In Kenya, farmers can get technical and financial support from organizations like Farm Africa, National Environment Trust Fund (NETFUND), the United Nation Environmental Protection (UNEP), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Agri-Kenya Challenge Fund, and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). These are just a few farmer-support agencies in Kenya, but there are many more of them I have not mentioned here.

The key challenge I see is that many farmers are unaware of the existence of these organizations, their programs to support agribusiness and agricultural projects in Kenya. This problem ties back to the challenge I already mentioned – ignorance. Moreover, as a small- or large-scale farmer, inaccessibility to assistance from these agencies can be another barrier to benefiting from their programs. That’s because only a few farmer-support programs in Kenya make sufficient and successful efforts to reach the majority of farmers, especially in remote areas.

Corruption can also complicate your ability to access support from farmer-support agencies in Kenya. Often, you’ll notice that a big proportion of funds offered by these organizations disappear into the pockets of a few individuals before reaching the intended beneficiaries.

Lack of planting materials

Inaccessibility to planting materials including farm inputs and machinery is a major challenge you will battle with as a seedling producer in Kenya. Many tree seedling producers in Kenya have had to quit the business because of a lack of planting materials in the form of affordability and availability. For instance, if your farm is situated in remote parts of the country, you may struggle with accessing quality tree varieties in sufficient amounts.

One thing I have noted is that most local agro vets and other sellers of arm materials are accustomed to dealing in specific planting material, which they also sell expensively. In general, if you cannot access or afford planting materials easily and in a timely manner, your ability to scale up as a seedling producer in Kenya could be limited.

Inadequate resources

The lack of access to adequate resources for seedling production is yet another key constraint for successful seedling production in Kenya. Here, I’m referring to things like plastic tubes (usually small polythene bags) whose unavailability could negatively impact your goal of producing seedlings with great roots on a well-formed plan. There are also issues with inadequate water supply, especially in dry areas.

Getting ingredients such as manure and fertilizers can be a tough task particularly due to an unreliable supply chain. For example, in counties like Central and Kisii, the excess demand for quality manure due to the depletion of ingredients in the soil affects the productivity of small-scale nursery setups that may not have the financial resources needed to purchase these inputs from other counties.

Underdeveloped supply chain

Kenya’s agricultural supply chain is generally struggling from head to toe. I think the major contributors to the weaknesses of the supply chain networks are corruption and the country’s over-reliance on agricultural inputs from foreign nations; mainly China. Kenya’s agriculture is one of Kenya’s industries whose sustainability heavily relies on materials imported from other countries. Supply delays and price fluctuations (due to factors like changes in import duty) affect the efficiency of seedling production.

Substandard seedlings

The quality of seedlings you produce has a significant impact on your ability to attract and retain customers. However, as a seedling producer, you need quality planting materials to produce for your nursery to produce quality seeds. Since accessing such materials is often a challenge to nursery operators, just as I explained above, you may find it difficult to produce quality seedlings.

Moreover, if you lack the incentive to invest in better planting materials for reasons such as low market demand for your seedlings, you will definitely not produce quality seedlings. Moreover, inadequate financial and non-financial resources are a constraint to the production of quality seedlings in Kenya.

Competition

The number of nurseries in Kenya is continually growing. The problem is that while the market is developing as well, these two do not grow proportionally. Additionally, tree species like eucalyptus as well as fruits such as avocado and oranges are relatively easy to raise and can be produced by anyone as they do not require any specialized skills to do the job. Subsequently, there are more seedlings being produced than what the market can absorb.

Worse, in remote places, the majority of farmers are accustomed to receiving free seedlings from agencies like those mentioned previously whose objective is to facilitate the planting of particular types of trees to increase forest cover as per Kenya’s vision 2030. Therefore, a single commercial seedling producer has so many entities to compete against.

High cost of planting materials

Nursery operation commands not only the accessibility to planting materials, but most importantly, getting them at affordable costs. Unfortunately, in Kenya, most agricultural inputs are extremely expensive and this causes numerous challenges like the animal feed crisis I discussed in my other article. The cost of fertilizers and manure, for instance, is above the reach of many seedling producers despite the government’s efforts.

So, if you’re going to become a nursery operator, it is a good idea to start forging your unique strategies to deal with the high cost of materials. Having a good plan to deal with the problem is essential because you’ll need to incorporate inorganic fertilizers in the soil to increase the nutrient status for purposes like enhancing the germination rates.

Inadequate access to relevant information

The only cure to the ignorance that is killing most Kenyan farmers is increased access to accurate information. Nursery managers, as a nursery operator or seedling producer, you are going to need up-to-date information on things like available funding sources, new technology, legal issues, and even market trends. Adequate access to information can only be achieved through reliable contact with external sources whether non-government entities like research agencies or governmental organizations like EPA.

In one of the previous paragraphs, I explained that local farmer-support organizations often don’t reach their intended clients. I also explained that the lack of information about the existence of such agencies and ignorance about their programs is one of the key reasons they are not as fruitful to local farmers as they should be. In Kenya, agricultural extension officers pay rare visits to farms, and at best, they don’t actually provide the information they ought to give to farmers. Thus, it is upon you, as a farmer, to seek helpful information otherwise without relevant information, your nursery operations may not do well.

Poor communication network

In an attempt to raise the standard of local nursery operations, many governmental and non-governmental agencies are trying to work with farmers on the ground. However, a weak communication network is still a problem.

Legal Issues

Some government initiatives and policies are threatening the growth and success of seedling production in Kenya. A typical example is a policy regarding the production of “fruit-trees.” An FAO article records the following:

“New government policy prohibits local nurseries from sowing and selling fruit-trees unless the nursery is registered with the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The aim is to introduce new improved fruit-tree stocks, thereby increasing the production capacity and the quality of the fruit,”

https://www.fao.org/3/x8080e/x8080e09.htm

Additional Resources

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/294219027_Challenges_and_Prospects_of_Tree_Seedlings_Production_in_Katsina_State_of_Nigeria

http://www.m.elewa.org/JABS/2009/23/5.pdf

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Maarten-Nieuwenhuis/publication/265478373_Challenges_and_opportunities_for_small-scale_tree_nurseries_in_the_East_African_highlands/links/5481b6200cf2a51326fe97a6/Challenges-and-opportunities-for-small-scale-tree-nurseries-in-the-East-African-highlands.pdf


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