The use of inorganic fertilizers over the years has left agricultural land all over Africa with acidic soils that have a reduced capacity to retain nutrients that plants need to grow. Yields have fallen by over 60 percent over the last 50 years in some areas and food being consumed has had increasingly reduced nutritive value. Nelson Kariuki has had the regulatory framework for the roll out of an organic fertilizer industry established in Kenya. In addition to the nutritive value of organic fertilizer to crops, it also has the ability to repair acidic soils. Nelson sees the widespread use of organic fertilizer as a fundamental shift that will begin to turn around the adverse effects that inorganic fertilizer has had on soils over the years.
The New Idea
Creating a policy framework for the roll out of an industry, in this case organic fertilizer, is no mean feat. Nelson had to patiently pull together different stakeholders including scientists, researchers, politicians, the international community, and academics who are all in some way custodians of how agriculture works in Kenya. He took this group through the process of understanding organic fertilizer and its environmental, social, and economic benefits to Kenya at a time when there was no formal definition or country standard for organic fertilizer. After ten years of this process, Nelson has succeeded in having a standard and regulatory framework for the production of organic fertilizer established in Kenya.
With buy-in on the benefits of organic fertilizer to the future of Kenya’s soils from policymakers, other stakeholders, and with a policy framework in place, Nelson then demonstrated a grassroots-based economic model that facilitates the distribution of organic fertilizer at scale while creating thousands of jobs for young people and women. He has therefore carefully designed a model that engages young people and women at the grassroots level in the production and distribution of the fertilizer; this is a product that they would also be using, but in addition to producing improved inputs of their own, they are also paid for their work. Nelson is transforming these young people and women from being just farmers, to being soil custodians, by engaging them in the promotion of the use of organic fertilizer for all its benefits to the soil and crop yields.
Nelson is passionate about organic fertilizer, because while growing up he saw how much bigger the fruits from his home garden were compared to what he sees today. While studying to be a farm manager at university, he managed a 50 acre farm and remembers how high the yields were every season without the use of any form of fertilizers. Nelson therefore believes his work has the potential to help people return to eating healthy foods while also enhancing their production yields. Further, he strongly believes that by actively engaging young people and women in parts of the agricultural value chain, young people who would currently rather do anything other than agricultural work, will return seeing the potential to create a viable and sustainable livelihood. Involving grassroots communities in the production, use and distribution of the product, Nelson believes will change their habits—out of an appreciation for the benefits of the product—and turn them into not only socially responsible farmers, but protectors of the soil.
By the early 1990s, consensus had been reached among stakeholders in the agricultural sector that soils in farm lands across Kenya were becoming increasingly less productive and less fertile. Yields were declining and food insecurity and poverty was on the rise all across rural regions. It is estimated that currently a 1 acre maize field yields 5 to 15 bags compared to the 40 to 60 bags the same size field yielded 50 years ago. The Horn of Kenya is currently experiencing the worst case of famine in over 60 years, in part, because there isn’t enough local food. Over 50 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line with the worst affected group being farmers. Poverty among farmers can be attributed to many things, among which is the ever-rising cost of farming despite declining revenues. The use of inorganic fertilizer magnifies this problem even further as it breeds dependency; inorganic fertilizers don’t remain viable season after season so must be purchased and reapplied each year. Over time the soil becomes completely degraded of nutrients and dependent on inputs to make it productive again.
The fertilizer industry has long been dominated by large multinationals that export their products into Kenya. Driven by the need to make profits, the impact of the use of their products on the environment becomes a secondary concern. In fact, the continued degradation of soils only fuels increased demand for their products. DAP is the most common brand of inorganic fertilizer on the market and is used by over 80 percent of farmers using inorganic fertilizer. The composition of fertilizer is Nitrogen, Phosphate, and Potassium—just 3 of the 16 elements needed by healthy soils. The continued use of DAP increases soil acidity which kills the microbial organisms in the soil. Without soil microbes, the soil is unable to retain any nutrients released into it. As a result, the soils become worse and the only way to keep it productive is to introduce larger volumes of DAP. In time, the increasing amounts of DAP needed by farmers becomes unaffordable. At that point, farmers resort to the use of manure which, although organic, is inadequate in feeding soils and crops the levels and diversity of nutrients they require.
To Nelson, the problem of nutrient depletion—though fundamental—is incredibly complex with far reaching effects. The government, civil society, and other stakeholders in the agricultural sector did not have a response to the grim reality the farmers faced. So, when the government challenged practitioners in the agricultural sector in 1994 to come up with a solution, Nelson started his long journey toward the establishment of an organic farming industry that exists today, with Rutuba as the industry standard. He knew that to have long-term and sustainable impact, his approach had to be citizen sector driven and scalable.
For Nelson to successfully build a grassroots-based model for the distribution of organic fertilizer, he had to create a product that is competitive in the marketplace. To do this, he created a composting agent called Bio Dynamic Microorganisms (BDM) based on Effective Microorganisms (EM) technology that is far more superior to EM. Both are lab cultures of microorganisms used to enhance and speed up the decomposition of biomass in the process of producing organic fertilizer. What EM decomposes in three months, BDM decomposes in just three weeks. Nelson secured a patent for BDM and went on to use it to manufacture organic fertilizer fortified to contain 16 minerals and elements that are essential for soil health and productivity. Rutuba, Nelson’s fertilizer brand, is by far the most complete form of organic fertilizer on the market. After many years of trial and error, its specification in terms of the elements it contains have just recently (2011) been adopted by the Kenya Bureau of Standards as the national standard for the production of organic fertilizer.
With a patent, the Kenyan Bureau of Standards Certification, and superior product at hand, Nelson decided to pass the value of these assets to the grassroots communities and essentially form a community owned IP and brand. To do this, Nelson decentralized the production of Rutuba and is creating a network of production units, with one in every county in Kenya. Each of these units is partly owned by youth and women’s groups from within the surrounding community. These same groups also source the raw material for the production unit and participate in the distribution of the finished product to farmers in and around the community. Women are benefiting in three different ways: from the income earned for the raw material they source, the increased yields from the use of Rutuba in their own farming, and profits earned from their shareholding in the production unit. In turn, they participate in the product distribution and promotion of its use to farmers by educating them about the benefits of using organic fertilizer.
The Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) is a network of organic farmers and organic farming stakeholders from all around Kenya. This network has led the push for organic farming for over a decade. Nelson feels that the focus of the network has always been on encouraging farmers not to use inorganic fertilizer so as to have their produce categorized as organic. The incentive given to farmers for engaging in organic farming has always been higher value in the market. He feels that not enough attention has been paid to the link between nutrient deplete soils and nutrient deplete foods. Nelson believes that getting farmers to move away from inorganic fertilizers is an important step but it’s not enough to really give organic food the nutritive value that it is generally assumed to have. As part of the network, Nelson is now educating stakeholders on how organic fertilizer can be fortified to not only substitute inorganic fertilizer but to also repair the soils and build up the nutritive value of organic foods. He is part of a network task force that is revising the policy on organic foods and products, and through that engagement, raising the bar for organic food standards. Nelson believes that the criteria needs to move from whether or not inorganic fertilizer was used to something more fundamental, and that is, whether the soils are being used sustainably and the food being produced is rich in nutrients. He is turning KOAN into a more active advocate for nutrient replete food and the link it has to nutrient replete soils.
Today, Nelson is putting together the first grassroots-based value chain that will provide employment to young people and women all across rural Kenya. These women and young people will not only be the producers of the raw material used in the production of organic fertilizer but will also participate in the distribution of the finished product and get paid for it. At scale, an industry based on Nelson’s model has the potential to employ hundreds of thousands of people across both rural and urban Kenya.
Nelson was brought up in a farming village and was from childhood exposed to agriculture as a primary source of livelihood for his family. One of the fond memories of his childhood was being part of the 4K club in his primary school. The four “Ks” in the Swahili acronym stand for Kenya Ku’ungana Kusaidia Kenya, meaning Kenya Uniting to Help Kenya. Through the 4K club, Nelson engaged in practical agriculture at the school farm and grew to enjoy it very much. Using the skills learned in the club, Nelson set up a cucumber garden at home and sold his harvest for income, which he gave to his mother, to help her with his school fees and other house expenses. Looking back, Nelson realizes that farmers were less reliant on inorganic fertilizer than they are today and that the soils were a lot more productive. Rotational farming was widely practiced by farmers to give soils time to regenerate, a practice that is rare these days.
During high school, Nelson lived with his uncle who owned a large commercial farm. Nelson spent a lot of his free time there and developed a knack for managing large-scale commercial farms. He altered the course of his education by dropping out of high school prematurely and opting instead to enroll for a diploma course in agriculture at Egerton University. While there, Nelson managed a 50 acre farm as a trainee. After his diploma, he worked as a district farm manager in Eldoret for the Ministry of Agriculture. Two years later, Nelson joined the Agriculture Development Cooperation (ADC) where he managed 10,000 acres of farmland for over five years and grew to become a high-level and well-respected farm manager.
Despite all of his success, Nelson felt that he had a greater social calling and ceased to be fulfilled by his work. He left ADC and enrolled for training in theology for three years as way to reflect on his life and connect with his true purpose. During training, Nelson engaged in a number of social activities, including building an orphanage and school for his local community. He traveled to different schools and talked to young people about HIV/AIDS and career development. As he did this, Nelson realized he was passionate about three things: (i) the urgent need to reclaim land for higher production in Kenya (ii) empowering people, and (iii) sustainable management of natural resources.
Thus, when the government called for action from civil society to address declining agricultural yields in 2001, Nelson founded Community Empowerment through Natural and Agricultural Resources and Technology. Over time his work has evolved and today he is poised to spread the Rutuba model around the country.