Knowledge for Development

Horticulture for food

Author: Lusike A. Wasilwa, Ph.D. Assistant Director Horticulture and Industrial Crops, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute

Date: 05/11/2008


Agricultural productivity in most sub-Saharan countries is 2-3 times lower than the world average and the production gap between developing and developed countries is widening. This situation is reflected in the production of most horticultural commodities in which per capita productivity has declined. Today’s farmers produce less per hectare than their grandparents. When an increase in production is reported, a notable increase in land under production is the cause and not increased productivity per unit area. Major factors contributing to this decline are poor soils, decreasing land resources, minimal access to irrigation (only 4% of the land used for agricultural production is under irrigation) and drought which affects 33% of crops produced for food slightly and another 25% severely. What mix of knowledge and technologies is required to expand production and increase productivity in Africa that can contribute to improving food, nutrition and income security? How can economies of scale be created?


Constraints to horticultural production

Horticulture commodities are predominantly produced by small (<1 acre) to medium scale farmers (10 acres) in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) where only 10% of the land is considered arable. For example, smallholder farmers in Kenya generate 40 to 50% of total exports and 90% of the commodities consumed locally. Major constraints facing horticulture smallholder farmers include:
• high inputs costs
• insecurity
• poor building, farm and road infrastructure
• inadequate extension support services
• limited awareness on market access or market standards
• limited farmer institutions/centres for specific training and information channeling related to horticulture hence minimal capacity building particularly in production

Those smallholder farmers producing for export face additional challenges such as:
• inaccurate trade data
• limited compliance to regulatory standards i.e. good agricultural practices or trade standards
• “food miles” and
• increasing freight charges

Fertilizer usage
Africa uses very little fertilizers in comparison to the rest of the world. Only 10% of the land in SSA is considered arable and some high yielding crops are “mining” the soil. For how long will Africa’s soil continue to produce sufficient crops to feed its populations keeping in mind that 20 million require food aid and more than 200 million are food insecure? Moreover there are limited funds available for production of horticultural commodities such as oil crops for biofuels on an industrial scale. Sub-Saharan Africa should build capacity and also increase the critical mass required to undertake research to produce drought tolerant horticultural crops which have minimal requirements of inorganic fertilizers. There is need to apply the whole value chain approach including:
• good agronomic and postharvest practices and marketing
• using true to type, certified, pest and disease free plant material/seed to target farmers through subsidizes and an efficient distribution system
• linking farmers to robust markets and capacity building of farmer groups and other key stakeholders
• awareness creation
• capacity building on group management

In Africa there is need to educate the population that a tissue cultured banana is not a genetically modified plant and that to obtain maximum yields, the plantlets require irrigation and fertilization. The Millennium Development Goals will not be realized in SSA unless advanced science and technologies such as biotechnology are adopted to increase food production, while simultaneously addressing health and food safety concerns and conserving the environment. Biotechnology can promote cross-border trade because it can be used:
• for up-scaling production of high-value horticultural crops by rapid multiplication technologies such as micro-propagation (tissue culture)
• as a rapid diagnostic tool for pests and diseases
• to study genetic diversity of plant pathogens so as to develop appropriate control measures
• to facilitate rapid variety development through marker assisted selection

Food safety
Developing countries that sell agricultural produce/products in Europe have to comply with sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) requirements and good agricultural practices (GAPs). How will SSA comply with, adapt and adopt all the “GAPs”? For high value horticultural products, international regulations and standards related to food safety and quality will determine trade opportunities but must also safeguard health of the populations. Therefore, should corresponding national regulations not be developed and enforced for commodities for local or regional consumption and not only for the export that constitute 1-5% of the total horticultural production? Should polices be set to ensure that GAPs are used for all commodities?

Climate change
Scientific reports show that Africa is the continent that will suffer most from climate change. Since most horticultural production is done under rain-fed conditions, climate change is a major concern. There is need to increase investments in irrigation or water harvesting technologies and focus research on development of horticultural crops for arid and semi arid lands. The current technologies are developed for medium to high potential areas.

Responding to challenges

Enhancing horticultural productivity
It is a known fact that the potential value of several other horticultural crops per hectare is more than 6 times that of cereals. As such, the horticultural industry should focus on intended target commodities and expected outputs to trigger productivity in all the various sub-sectors which show potential. Most of the horticultural commodities in SSA are sold in their raw form at the lowest price especially when there is a glut. More income could be generated through value addition to reduce post-harvest losses and lengthen shelf-life. Solution to overcoming the challenges and unlocking the potential of the horticultural sector in SSA is to form strong producer groups, producer – marketing alliances and producer – researcher working groups who also interact with policymakers. There is need for substantive investments in irrigation, biotechnology, plant breeding, postharvest technologies, fertigation, pest and disease management and food safety to sustain the projected growth indices.

Investment in horticultural research
At the Maputo declaration, NEPAD recommended that African governments allocate 10% of their budgets to stimulate agricultural development. Only three countries have achieved this; Malawi, Nigeria and South Africa. The majority of the countries invest less than 1% of their budget in agriculture and even a smaller fraction in research and development. In Kenya, the agricultural sector receives only 1% of the national budget which is further sub-divided with very little going to the horticultural sector. Horticulture contributes 58% of the agricultural GDP and it could therefore increase the proportion of funds allocated to research which is geared to increasing production of horticultural commodities for food and foreign exchange earnings. Kenya needs to increase its investment in agricultural research and development to stimulate technology development leading to increased productivity.

Rising food prices and food crises
The rising cost for food can only be solved by increasing agricultural productivity. Horticultural production in the 21st century is less than in the 20th century. Kenya experienced a rapid increase (33%) of food prices from 2007 to 2008 for most crops particularly vegetable oils; recording a 97% increase from January to March 2008 when fuel prices increased by over 30%. When one looks at food security and socio economic development in SSA, there is a notable change in eating habits which can be attributed to several factors including changing food tastes. Populations in SSA are food insecure and the food consumed is of poor nutrition hence nutrition insecurity. To meet their food requirements, these countries import particularly cereals such as maize, rice and wheat and assorted processed horticultural products from regional and global markets.

As cereals are now being used for biofuels in the western countries, availability of these commodities at affordable prices, is compromised. Sub-Saharan Africa has to begin initiatives that will maximize horticultural production including:
• implementing favourable national policies
• fostering the development of holistic crop value chains
• improving access to markets and reduce postharvest losses
• providing subsidies for farmers to access inputs (machinery, hybrid seed and fertilizer)
• promoting and facilitating public-private-partnership
• increasing investment in research and technology including irrigation
• reducing the cost of agricultural equipment and postharvest technologies
• improving agricultural extension
• developing new crops/varieties for the diverse ecological-zones and to meet the challenges of climate change; and
• documenting, characterizing and conserving indigenous varieties; fruits, vegetable, cereals, root crops, herbs and spices

Human and infrastructural capacity
Research and development capacity in SSA is very weak particularly in taxonomy, breeding, crop biotechnology and postharvest technologies to support increased production and productivity. There is inadequate staff to support the current research projects and to deal with emerging issues in crop production and protection, postharvest handling and value addition, marketing and environmental conservation. Research centres and universities have poorly equipped laboratory facilities that lack modern equipment to allow solving of problems along the horticultural value chain. Smallholder farmers cannot afford to pay for the services nor invest in the infrastructure required for many high value horticultural commodities (Wagner, 2005).
Scientists have limited exposure to current technologies and information to improve their research performance. Policymakers and research leaders should urgently address these issues by providing opportunities for enhancing international research collaboration and establishing centres of excellence within SSA that can be used by national researchers.

Food (carbon) miles
The question that resounds is, “Are food miles fair miles” (Anon, 2007)? The cost of air freight is high and will continue to rise if the price of fossil fuels continues to increase as was witnessed before September 2008. Countries and consumers are concerned about reducing their carbon footprint. How can SSA countries all subscribe to the Kenyan “grown under the sun” campaign with a goal to label produce with a logo showing that it was grown without contribution to greenhouse gasses (Riungu, 2007)? Use of alternative sources of energy such as solar should be promoted (Kenya has the largest greenhouse powered by solar at Bilashaka Farm, Naivasha). Promotion of drought tolerant biofuel crops such as jatropha should be initiated to help lower fuel prices.


The potential of horticulture for food is underexploited and undervalued. Productivity increases can be triggered by more investments in research and development, for example, research into drought tolerant horticultural crops or by higher investments in irrigation. Biotechnology (e.g. tissues culture) has a lot to offer when it comes to up-scaling the production of high value horticultural crops. But this must go along with education and extension about the possibilities and consequences of biotechnology. Investments must also be made to build human and infrastructural capacity through education and training and increasing exposure of scientists and other stakeholders to current technologies and information to improve performance. Policymakers and research leaders should urgently provide opportunities for enhancing international research collaboration and building on existing centres of excellence in horticulture within SSA that can be used by national researchers. At the same time national policies within SSA should be set to comply with sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) requirements and good agricultural practices (GAPs) to ensure food safety standards for local and regional consumption and meet international standards for horticultural export. These will enhance trade opportunities while at the same time safeguard the health of domestic consumers. Horticulture in SSA and the wider ACP region must flourish for food to feed the hungry and for trade.

For further information visit the website of KARI.


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Anon, 2007. Are food miles fair miles? Horticultural Insight. 6:7-8.
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