Elderly Mary Wambui has been a struggling vegetable farmer in Juja until a year ago when she learnt how to triple income from her one acre plot.

Her specialty crops for the last eleven years have been spinach and sukumawiki (kales) because they are fast moving and have a ready market, especially in Nairobi.

For every kilo of spinach she brought to the market in the city, Wambui pocketed Sh5 from middlemen who would then transport the vegetable to their clients; mainly restaurants, hotels and supermarkets.

Today, for every kilo of spinach she harvests, she is assured of Sh15, triple the initial amount. It is not that the price for the produce has tripled, rather Wambui is among thousands of farmers who are taking to growing organic crops.

Organic food may not strike you as a subject that requires attention until it becomes clear that most, if not all, of the vegetables consumed in Nairobi constitute outrageous amounts of disease causing chemical residue.

A survey randomly done within Nairobi by the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (Koan) and Quest Laboratories – testing for pesticide residues in common vegetables from several Nairobi markets – found that residents are consuming foods with high levels of chemical residues that have negative impact on their health and environment.  

“Innocently, they buy food that is grown using chemicals and worse still some of the chemicals are either banned or heavily restricted in other countries,” said the Koan report.  

But it was a complete opposite for food grown under organic farming, where use of synthetic chemicals and fertilisers is eliminated. Instead, food is grown on soils that are nurtured with natural biodegradable materials.

That could perhaps explain why the market for organic foods is growing at a rate of 30 per cent in Kenya, specifically in Nairobi, against a global average of 25 per cent per year.

To drive this growth and ensure that as many small scale farmers as possible gain from what promises to be a major market, several organisations and individuals have come together to put a nascent industry on its feet.

For instance, the organic food industry has developed a post-secondary school curriculum to train organic food specialists up to diploma level, it enjoys branded counters at some Nakumatt Holdings stores, has branded restaurants in Nairobi, runs its own open air market at Juja, has developed its own certification standards and has developed a unique food marketing distribution system within the Nairobi metropolitan.

Koan is one such organisation that is focusing on helping farmers build production capacity, access markets and ensure that the produce they deliver is fully organic. Its national coordinator, Eustace Kiarii, says the group is working with 13 major buyers of organic food produced by small scale farmers including major hotels, restaurants and supermarkets across the country.

“We link the farmers directly to markets ,which mean we help them to by-pass exploitative middle men and ensure all the profit margin remains with the farmer,” says Mr Kiarii.

One of the emerging trends across this industry is that farmers prefer to grow crops as groups or communes rather than as individuals. The commune system of farming has been practised in countries like Israel for ages and is credited with helping the pre-dominant desert country become food sufficient and an exporter.

“We encourage organic farmers to grow their produce as groups, which cuts down production costs because expenses such as certification are shared and therefore become cheaper,” said Mr Kiarii.  

The system becomes even better because of the profile of most of the farmers. Most own small plots and are not wealthy enough to engage in large-scale farming, hence money got from the sale of the organic produce contributes a significant portion of their household budget.

There are large scale organic farmers who grow for export to the European market. The farmers face  challenges brought about by anti-global warming campaigners who say that flying  the produce to Europe contributes to global warming.  

Campaigners say air travel is responsible for 11 per cent of carbon emissions and is therefore at odds with organic principles. This has put to risk local exporters’ ability to access the Sh2.8 trillion EU organic food market.

According to Ms Kahumbu, an organic farmer and head of Green Dreams Limited, a company that is helping farmers to market organic produce, local consumer response has been overwhelming.  Ms Kahumbu, together with Koan, has pioneered the opening of an exclusive organic counter at the Nakumatt Westgate store.

“At Nakumatt, we increased our sales by about 30 per cent within the first 45 days. We are going to roll out new counters at more Nakumatt stores.”  

Because of increasing business, Ms Kahumbu said the company is planning to start importing produce from Uganda and Tanzania to meet local demand.  “We are also expanding to food lines like going into organic juices and packaging chicken in a co-branding arrangement with Kenchic,” she said.

On pricing, Ms Kahumbu said it is 20 to 50 per cent above the conventional food produce. “For instance, our spinach sell at Sh35, while the conventional one sells at Sh15 a kilo. We pay farmers Sh15 from the selling price,” she said.

The industry is focusing more on establishing stronger regulatory rules and ethics. Ms Kahumbu said she was working with a group of 1,000 farmers, most of whom are supplying through the groups. Koan says one of the main challenges  facing the industry is to assure consumer that the food is indeed organic. Usually, some farmers grow crops in conventional ways and pass them off as organic.

The organisation says it vets farmers in its network in addition to those going through an organic certification process.

“We are keen on a certification process, which starts from soil preparation to post-harvest handling. Addressing the risk of having non-organic produce passed off as organic is a challenge and that is why we also have internal control systems. For instance, we require farmers to keep records and we are now doing random inspections,” said Mr Kiarii.

In Kenya, there are now two certification agencies whose opinion is recognized by the relevant world bodies. They are Africert and Encert.

According to Koan official Ms Wanjiru Kamau, formal organic agriculture is fast gaining popularity with more than 15,054 farmers cultivating more than 181,585 hectares now listed as certified farmers.

Another major challenge has been access to markets, which at times has demotivated farmers to abandon the farming system. But this is likely to change with the growing awareness and a market growth of 30 per cent per year according to Koan.

One of the main motivation behind organic farming were incidents of rising diseases associated with lifestyle and the need to change diet and eat foods that are not harmful to health.

The other is environmental conservation, an agenda being pushed by environmental conservation groups and individuals.

The Kenya Institute of Organic Farming (KIOF) based at Juja near Nairobi is one of the pioneer institutions that have  improved capacity of farmers to grow organic foods. KIOF has established a school that trains students up to the diploma level.  

Other institutions offering training include Manor House in Kitale, Sacred Africa in Bungoma and Baraka in Molo. KIOF is also a pioneer of the first specialty organic food market also based at Juja town.