Kenya: Kingdom of the Smallholder

When we were driving from Nairobi Airport to our hotel in the suburb of Karen, one of our hosts told me: “Kenya is like a jigsaw and even when you have all the pieces, there is still no clear picture.”

After travelling nearly 2,000km through its central region, I now have a better idea of what he was getting at.

I can’t believe how much we packed into just over a week of travel. Our days started at 5am, except one morning when we slept until 7 (never before has 7am felt like such a lie-in). We took it in turns to be team leader, literally blowing a whistle to herd bleary-eyed scholars into dusty LandRovers.

Together we explored all kinds of farms producing all kinds of food – beef, dairy, avocado, macadamia, pineapple, hay, wheat, chickpeas, mung beans, maize, sorghum and potatoes. We visited a flower farm (Kenya is the biggest exporter of cut flowers to Europe), a fruit processing factory, a tea plantation (Kenya is the biggest exporter of tea in the world), the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Kenya is a farming nation and more than 80% of its 45 million people live in rural areas and work in agriculture. Here, the smallholder is king and it was this fact that made the biggest impact on me.

Coming from the UK where small-scale commercial farming is increasingly viewed as an oxymoron, Kenya’s set up was a breath of fresh air. I come from a family farm of fewer than 200 acres and I get fed up of hearing about their dismal future. Far from being viewed as economically unviable, Kenya’s smallholders are seen as the future of food production. We heard it again and again from Government and industry, food processors and exporters, even larger commercial farmers and corporate farm managers agreed small-scale is by far the dominant model; and one that isn’t going to change any time soon. The national Government is putting 6.9 billion Shillings (almost £47 million) into it. To be in a country where small is the norm and no one’s trying to change that was a bit of a revelation. And when I say small, I mean less than half an acre in some cases. I’ve seen bigger allotments.

I know that in order to remain profitable and productive, many farms have to grow in order to compete. Economies of scale, efficient management, sustainable intensification – this is how we feed our growing population. But the gulf of perception that’s opening up in the west between the big guys who do the serious food production and the fluffy smallholders who piddle around with a few sheep and some chickens is huge (note: I said perception!) We seem to think one form of farming feeds the masses and the other serves the consumer who can afford to be fussy. In Kenya, the large farms and the smallholdings operate in the same market. Go to your local Lidl in July and check out the avocados – some will have been grown on a corporate farm others, in the same box, will come from a Kenyan smallholding. I like that. I like that farms of all sizes produce food for everyone. It means both systems are able to co-exist.

Don’t get me wrong, the small-scale model has its pitfalls. The tradition of sub-dividing land as it passes down the generations could be a threat to Kenyan agriculture. I spoke to one man who was trying to persuade his seven or eight siblings to keep their parents’ 11 acre farm as one holding, urging them to be shareholders in a company instead of splitting the land evenly between them. For where does it end? Will Kenyans in years to come be walking around with cups of soil, stubbornly insisting on their share of tiny patches of land? To me, it’s leading families into a financial cul-de-sac.

One thing that’s fuelling this situation is urbanisation. Huge areas of top quality agricultural land are going under concrete as the population grows and cities expand. I can understand the temptation to sell your inherited piece of farmland for development – some of the prices paid are eye-watering – but once it’s gone, it’s gone. And that goes for the cash, as well as the land.

Improving productivity, efficiency and traceability are huge challenges. There isn’t much money around and many subsistence producers live a hand-to-mouth existence, preventing them from investing in their land to improve yields or tackle pests and diseases. For cash-strapped farmers, conserving the environment didn’t seem too high on the list of priorities either. Agricultural and environmental organisations do seem wise to these challenges and we heard about many projects aimed at empowering smallholders, from educating them about pesticide use and the importance of pollinators to the benefits of using certified seed. I also believe Kenya’s larger, commercial farms are doing great work in this area; leading the way with modern production and management techniques, running extension services and demonstrating just what this fertile land can grow.

There is an impressive amount of communication within the farming community and tonnes of media coverage. There are television and radio programmes and a weekly eight-page supplement in the main national newspaper, all dedicated to practical farming. People can get tips and advice and it’s a platform for the most successful entrepreneurs to share their ideas. I was so inspired by this positive communication that I’ve decided to re-jig my travel plan and return to Kenya in September as part of my individual Nuffield study. I believe the UK could learn a thing or two from this most agricultural nation.

The vast majority of farmers sell their produce at local markets or supply processors and exporters. We saw this working particularly well at Pick ‘n’ Peel, a tropical juice producer near Nairobi which buys pineapples, mangoes, oranges, apples and tomatoes in tiny quantities from numerous smallholders and manufactures cartoned juice sold all over Africa. This relationship allows the grower to sell their best produce at market and send the perfectly edible wastage to Pick ‘n’ Peel for processing, giving them a second income stream.



We visited an avocado farm and packhouse which exports the green darling of the middle class shopping basket to the UK and Europe. Just to give you an idea of how much we love our avocados – Kenya’s entire annual production can satisfy Europe’s demand for just one week. Peru can manage two.


As well as growing their own, the business we visited are also supplied by smallholders through grower cooperatives. The avocados are graded as only the best make it into the coveted export market. A set price is paid to the co-op, which divvies out the money to individual growers depending on how many avocados they supplied, and the rejected fruit is either sold elsewhere or offered back to the farmer. By western standards the prices do admittedly sound low (this seems to be a farmer’s fate wherever he or she is in the world). I learnt not to look at Africa through a western lens because life is so completely different to what we’re used to (farm workers, for instance, may earn just a few dollars a day but their employers may also offer housing, education and social care). However, I couldn’t help but think there must be ways to improve the smallholders’ product and therefore the price they receive.


The dairy supply chain was a bit of an eye opener. It’s not unusual for a farmer to milk a couple of litres from a single cow, pour it into a churn along with the neighbour’s milk and then add it to a bigger churn at the village collection point where it’ll sit in the sun waiting to be collected by the milk tanker. The only place I’ve seen anything similar was in Transylvania. And Romania is a lot colder than Kenya.

I asked a few people about the traceability issues, and the safety of Kenyan dairy products. There was a suggestion that huge amounts of milk are thrown away at the processing stage due to contamination (although I only heard that from one source). Most said the milk is perfectly safe, though our driver advised me not to buy it from the kiosks on the side of the road – only from supermarkets and reputable retailers. Personally, I drank plenty of milk during my visit and it was fine (although there were a few occasions when it didn’t look particularly appetising – there were often lumpy bits floating in my coffee and it gets a bit crusty around the edge of the flask!)

Many farming tasks are done the old-fashioned way, not so much because modern mechanised techniques aren’t available but because labour is cheap and employing local people is seen as the right thing to do (and I’m guessing not employing a growing population of Kenyans could make life difficult politically for larger farm businesses).

Herdsmen stay with the cattle 24 hours a day, protecting them from predators at night and guiding them to grazing grounds in the day. We saw dozens of people preparing the soil on a tea plantation. We visited a 5,000 acre ranch where 190 dairy cows are still milked by hand in the field. I could not believe my eyes as a team of milkers called their cows to the pail by name (and the cows actually obliged, tempted of course by a nosebag of feed). I think they were getting up to 2,000 litres a day and the milk was pasteurised on the farm.

Boran bulls


Woman sorting tea leaves – women do most of the practical farm work in Kenya

One night, as we drove past rows of market stalls all laden with produce and covered over with plastic sheets I asked: “Won’t that food get stolen being left there overnight?”

Not a chance, I was told. Kenyans would never steal from a neighbour or someone they know. No one will touch it.

I saw dozens of street markets like that – an abundance of food, there for the taking in a country where many people don’t have much; and yet the system works on trust. Maybe, when communities farm small strips of land side by side, there’s a kinship in agriculture that’s getting lost in the western world behind our fences and boundaries.

TIA. This is Africa. All hail the smallholder.


As farming scholars, we weren’t in Kenya to enjoy its wildlife but I had to include some photos of the amazing animals we saw completely by chance. We were hosted on two working ranches – one of 44,000 acres and another 20,000 acre ranch and game reserve. Both of these farmed landscapes had so much wildlife our cameras were clicking constantly and it was great to see agriculture and conservation going hand-in-hand.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all our hosts for giving us a unique insight into this amazing country, taking us way off the beaten track and showing us a side of Kenya you would never see as a tourist. And, as ever, sincere thanks to my Nuffield sponsors The Royal Welsh Agricultural Society and The Trehane Trust for sponsoring my place on the African Global Focus Programme. It was a life-changing experience.



  1. Thank you Nic and Catherine. There is so much more I could have included but the post would have turned into War and Peace! I’m working on two more posts about the Czech Republic and South Africa so watch this space


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