Before last year, George Wainaina’s tiny shop selling agricultural goods and veterinarian supplies in Karura, a lush farming area of central Kenya, wasn’t doing so well. His customers found it difficult to get what they needed. Some would complain; others would simply leave.
“I didn’t sell many products, I didn’t have many suppliers, and I used to have problems with working capital,” recalls Wainaina, the 27-year-old entrepreneur and professionally trained veterinarian. “I would tell them to come back next time. Some used to come back, but most lost trust and disappeared.”
His problem, and that of the farmers he wanted to serve, cut straight to the heart of one of sub-Saharan Africa’s deepest challenges when it comes to creating a profitable agricultural sector: access.
Africa is home to a quarter of the world’s arable land – ripe and ready to become the world’s breadbasket. Yet a stunning 80% of this is not being utilised. And of the 20% that is, the majority is owned by poor smallholder farmers with just one or two hectares of land, who face enormous challenges when it comes to accessing things to improve harvests and incomes that developed world farmers perhaps take for granted: credit; seeds; fertiliser; information on weather and market prices; and the markets to sell their products.
But things are beginning to turn around. A wide range of innovations are being developed in Kenya to help increase farmers’ access to inputs, information and markets, and to boost their productivity.
Since last July, Wainaina has been the proud owner of a “Farm Shop” store, joining a growing franchise network (locally owned and operated) of agro dealers located in rural and under-served areas of Kenya, which hopes to boost smallholder productivity by providing farmers with high-quality products, services, and information. Where once there was a haphazardly arranged set of goods hidden behind a metal cage, now his shop’s aisles and shelves are neatly stocked with everything from fertilisers to hybrid seeds, insecticides, and micro-drip irrigation systems. The store holds demos, promotions, and free training sessions.
One of the keys to Farm Shop’s radical overhaul is that it has done away with the incredibly cumbersome, slow, and inefficient process of paper ledgers and stock keeping. In each store, owners are given an Android-powered tablet with software that allows them quickly and easily order inventory – all at the touch of a button. Point-of-sale transactions are now tracked in real-time, which gives the company a unique ability to track and respond to every single sale, as well as prices and inventory levels. “Before, we used to use cash receipts and paper record books,” says Wainaina. We can now trace all our sales, find totals easily, and order supplies much faster.”
The effect has been almost immediate. Business, says Wainaina, has increased nearly five-fold since he converted the store. Last month, his Farm Shop branch saw an astounding 400,000 KES ($4,500) in sales, with over 1,350 transactions. Farm Shop currently has four shops across Kenya, offering 54 products and services like soil testing, and they are planning on opening eight new shops in eight weeks, starting this month.
The company is also offering to help farmers actually figure out what they need to improve their harvest. With their new soil-testing service, Farm Shop agents can collect soil samples from farmers, and within a few days send results directly to the farmers via SMS, informing them what will help improve yields. For example, if they detect a potassium deficiency, a farmer can then go to the shop and purchase more fertiliser, or get the right kind for what their soil needs.