Watch: farmers connect with markets in Kenya and Uganda
While the past year's drought in East Africa and tense elections in Kenya grab the headlines, the region's farmers are quietly gaining greater access to markets and generating cash incomes.

Imagine farming with no Irish Farmers Journal to give you the latest prices and weather forecasts, no marts or co-ops to sell to, and no local hauliers at the end of the phone.

This is everyday life for farmers in northern Uganda – yet they are finding innovative ways of overcoming those constraints and getting more cash out of their land.

Standing in a newly planted field of ground nuts and banana trees near Abim town, Andrew Omara is one of them.

Last year, he sold his small farm a few miles away to start a bigger one here. He has cleared 10ac of bush and has another 30ac left to open.

A crucial step in the process was the €2,400 loan he secured to cover nearly half of the land purchase. At 20%, he considers he got a good interest rate.

This was thanks to the detailed farm records he was able to produce through FIT Uganda, a firm providing remote accounting and information services to farmers through mobile phones and a network of local agents, most of them farmers themselves.

“We send 56,000 messages every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday with price data, weather information by region and financial or extension tips,” said Robert Kintu, chief executive of FIT Uganda.

The farmers pay for the service, and more than 20,000 of them do their accounting through the firm. The most popular feature is a prediction of the rainy season’s start date several weeks in advance, which allows farmers to plan crop planting.

Andrew and his neighbours are also making strides as a group. They bulk their crops together and advertise on local radio to attract more affluent buyers. They also test new seeds, with a drought-resistant variety of sunflower being trialled on a nearby farm.

Not far from Andrew’s farm, Grace Okengo’s holding looks very different. After trialling a field of chillies last year, she has now planted more than 5ac of her 7ac farm with the crop. Sunshine Agro Products, a spice processor in the region, provides her with seeds, buys her production and gives her a commission on seeds sold on to other local farmers. “Chilli is better than other crops such as tomato, which failed entirely last year. It is drought-resistant,” said Grace. After paying 10 workers per acre during the two labour-intensive annual harvests, she earns more than €100/ac each year – a significant rise in income for this single mother of five children.

In these cases and others visited by the Irish Farmers Journal, the Irish aid agency Goal established the link between farmers and businesses such as FIT Uganda or Sunshine Agro Products. After decades of armed conflict and refugee crises in this region, stability has returned and Goal’s humanitarian role has changed. “At the moment, we’re working with the private sector to stimulate their activity. It’s not so much about subsidies, but encouraging farmers to access new value chains,” said Goal Uganda’s Charles Wando. “We come in and do a market diagnosis. Then we work with the actors to fill the gaps in the market.”

Cash from avocados

Another example is TruTrade, a Ugandan and Kenyan company majority-owned by the Irish charity Gorta Self-Help Africa. The firm provides a trading service for farmers and merchants, with a twist: it pays a higher commission to those brokers who secure a higher price for farmers.

“Merchants coming to farmers buy products speculatively,” said Will Galvin of TruTrade. They drive to villages in trucks and offer the lowest price possible in the hope of making a profit on their way back to the cities on a day-to-day basis. “The problem is credit. The banking network is lacking and you can’t get a trading loan,” said Galvin.

TruTrade’s mobile phone-based service lets merchants enter the volume and price agreed with a farmer. TruTrade staff check that the transaction meets a minimum price and pays the farmer directly through their phone – as common as cash in the region, and easier to control for farming women who often see their income captured by their husbands. The corresponding amount is loaned to the merchant, who must repay it after selling on the products.

Listen to participants in the avocado trade in our podcast below:

Avocado growers in Kenya’s Muranga county have been using the system to sell their fruit to FairTrade Enterprises, which exports it to the Netherlands under the premium organic and fair trade labels. Farmers in the town of Getige said they now secure over 7c per avocado, instead of 2c from roaming merchants, and get paid within days instead of weeks. They can hardly keep up with European demand for the fruit. “We know that our production could increase 10-fold and there would still be a market,” said Simon Kinani Kijachi. He has 200 avocado trees as well as other crops and two cows on 4ac of sloping land in a lush river valley. His neighbour John Wanjoki showed the two new houses he built for his family with the growing income from his 2ac farm.

FairTrade Enterprises employs agronomists to train the farmers and increase production, packs and ships the fruit and keeps a 10% margin. “FairTrade is a private company but a social enterprise,” said its co-founder James Weru. “In the future, we want to process and pack avocados in the villages and start oil production.”

Lesson learned: embrace change

The farmers visited in Kenya and Uganda displayed an incredible willingness to change habits established for generations. Once convinced that chilli would improve her income, Grace Okengo converted most of her farm to the crop within two years. Others turned fragile enterprises focused on maize, a commodity most exposed to weather and price volatility, into diversified farms supporting livestock and a variety of crops – again within one or two years. The improvement in their lives and the flexibility they have shown despite limited external support are inspiring.

Long read: farming in Iowa is on a different scale but faces similar challenges
Ireland’s five Nuffield scholars for 2019 report from this year’s Contemporary Scholars Conference (CSC), which took place in Ames, Iowa, USA.

The 2019 Nuffield International Contemporary Scholars Conference (CSC) took place in Ames, Iowa, from 9 to 17 March and provided attendees with an excellent overview and insight into US agriculture and the issues facing the sector there.

Sixty-seven Nuffield scholars from around the world participated in conference events, allowing for global perceptions to be discussed and challenged.

Comparing issues in Iowa and Ireland

While the scale of farming in Iowa and the approach by farmers there to solving problems may be very different to here in Ireland, many comparable issues face agriculture on both sides of the Atlantic.

Iowa is a major force in US agricultural production, boasting 30m acres of farmland, consisting of some of the richest and most productive soil in all of the US.

To put this in perspective, Ireland has approximately 12m acres of farmland (see Table 1).

Referred to as the heart of the heartland, Iowa is the second-highest ranking state for agricultural exports out of the US and on to world markets.

Iowa also helps fuel the nation’s vehicles, with over 25% of ethanol used in the US produced in the state.

The general outlook during the week-long conference was that agriculture in Iowa will continue to play a major role in the state’s economy.

However, it is evident that there are significant challenges facing the sector, particularly in relation to the environment and the impending threat of regulation.

Growth in agricultural production in Iowa has largely been driven by expansion on to new lands and increased acreage, a worrying trend in terms of sustainability that needs to be addressed.

Policy makers are keen that productivity growth should come from improved efficiencies and the adoption of improved breeding practice, precision agriculture and nutrient management, as well as disease prevention and eradication.

Water quality tops the environmental agenda, as Iowa and other Midwestern states have been under pressure to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous run-off that is entering waterways and contributing to what is known as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Every summer, a dead zone forms in the Gulf of Mexico where nutrients from the Mississippi river watershed, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, fertilise the Gulf's surface waters to create excessive amounts of algae.

Climate change

In relation to climate change and its potential impact, environmental risks are weighted only as equal to, if not less, than risks to the economy and health.

When discussing the relationship between agriculture and the environment, the majority of the conversation at the Nuffield CSC focused around water quality, climate change and the perceptions of agricultural impact versus the reality.

Little was mentioned of biodiversity, other than it may play an important part in increasing resilience to climate change.

In an environment where there is a can-do approach, farmers in Iowa are not used to regulation in the same way as we are in Europe and are fearful of higher costs for environmental compliance.

Generally, the US views the EU as overly restrictive in regard to the use of new technologies for production gains.

Vital member of the chain

The farmer was identified as a vital member of the chain of custody and must be represented at discussions relating to the adoption of technologies in practice.

Discussions around biotech and increased intensity being the potential answer to climate change were also prominent throughout the week.

One such example given was the US dairy industry, where cow numbers have reduced from 25m in 1950 to just over 9m last year.

Yet milk production has increased by 60% over the same period.

Does this mean that the carbon footprint of a glass of milk in 2019 has decreased by 66% compared with 1950?

It may not be quite that simple, but it does give food for thought.


Iowa is a state heavily reliant on pork production. The risk of African Swine Fever (ASF) is a major threat to the state and pig farmers in Iowa are vulnerable to an outbreak of the deadly disease.

There were harsh lessons learned during the Avian Influenza outbreak in 2015, when 30m of the 50m poultry birds in the state were infected.

Since then, biosecurity has improved, but there is still no national regime for animal identification (ID) in the US.

Pork and poultry producers are very open to tracking and traceability, but there is significant resistance from cattle producers across the US.

Farming in Iowa is heavily dependent on immigrant workers

Similar to Ireland, the demand for labour and successfully attracting human capital into agriculture is a key challenge facing the agriculture industry in Iowa.

Farming in Iowa is heavily dependent on immigrant workers, especially livestock, fruit and vegetable producers.

It has been reported that there are as many as 1.75m undocumented immigrants working in US agriculture today, with many of these in Iowa.

Farm groups argue that a failure to reform the labour policy would drive more production outside the US to countries such as Chile, Mexico and Brazil, while also putting at risk the nation's abundant and safe food supply.

As a state, Iowa has adopted several approaches to address this labour shortage, including the Grow From Within programme, which focuses on members of young farmer organisations such as 4-H, an extension programme for young farmers.

This extension programme aims to attract those from non-farming backgrounds to enter farming through marketing the agricultural industry as an opportunity for a career in science, technology, engineering, maths (STEM), marketing or engineering technology.

Extension programmes

The state universities in Iowa have developed well-established extension programmes which facilitate knowledge transfer between university-led research programmes and farmers.

They strive to incorporate on-farm evaluations into research, to complete training with local farmers and apply practical application of research findings on local farms in conjunction with the farmer.

This allows farmers to feed back to the universities and have a say in the research conducted and ensure that research being carried out is relevant to and addressing the main issues of everyday practice.

Public sector investment and delivery of agricultural research and development (R&D), along with the success of the extension programmes, has been highlighted as a main attributing factor to growth within the agricultural sector.

Farmer representative bodies also place a large emphasis on the importance of research to improve productivity, with groups such as the Iowa Soy Bean Association allocating up to 40% of their budget to research every year.

The US is one of the world’s largest exporters, but also one of its largest importers, hence reciprocal trade is very important to the country’s economy.

Agriculture is the only US sector to maintain a positive trade balance.

Every $1 spent on marketing US agricultural exports generates $30 in income.

Trade tensions

Current trade relations with China are directly affecting grain and soya bean growers in Iowa and agriculture has been the collateral damage in the ongoing trade tension between China and the Trump administration.

One of the highlights of the week in Iowa was a visit to the inspiring venue that is the World Food Prize in Des Moines.

The World Food Prize was founded by Norman E Borlaug, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his lifetime’s work to feed a hungry world.

The World Food Prize is an annual $250,000 award that Borlaug hoped would both highlight and inspire breakthrough achievements in improving the quality, quantity and availability of food in the world, and which is now often referred to as the Nobel prize for food and agriculture.

This visit to the World Food Prize brought home the serious disconnect between the primary food producer and the consumer, particularly as there is a growing move away from science in dictating agricultural production in western society.

Instead, consumer perception appears to be increasingly driving production practices.

Long term, this will not deliver sustainable food production for the world.

Key learnings from Iowa

  • There is a growing disconnect between the primary producer and the consumer.
  • The lack of traceability in the US will be a major issue for US exporters trying to open new market around the world.
  • Attracting human capital into agriculture is a key challenge facing the industry in Iowa. There is an increasing focus on attracting those from non-farming backgrounds to enter the workforce through marketing the agricultural industry as an opportunity for a career in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
  • Growth in agriculture has largely been driven by acreage expansion. Future productivity growth should come from greater efficiencies and the adoption of improved breeding practices, precision agriculture and nutrient management and disease prevention and eradication.
  • The five Nuffield scholars for 2019 are Ciara O’Hanlon, Pat O’Meara, Karina Pierce, Ailish Moriarty and Alison Holmes.

    Global focus: Brazilian agriculture in expansion mode
    Brazilian agriculture is firmly in expansion mode. Demand for soya beans, dairy, beef and pigmeat is firmly on the up.

    The Brazilian agriculture sector accounts for 22.5% of GDP and in the region of 37% of the country’s labour force. There are over 5.2m farms in Brazil.

    Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of coffee, sugar, orange juice, sugarcane ethanol, chicken and of course soya beans. It is the third-largest exporter of beef.

    In 2018, soya beans accounted for 33% of agricultural exports, followed by soya hulls at 6.5%, beef at 6.4%, sugar cane at 6.4% and chicken at 6.3%.

    Last year, the number one destination for Brazilian exports was China, with 35% of exports going there. It was followed by the European Union (17.5%) and the US (6.7%).


    The state of Mato Grosso has the highest grain production in Brazil, accounting for over 26% of grain production. It is followed by Parana state and Rio Great South state. In total, the three states account for 56.4% of total grain production.

    In the last 48 years, the country has increased grain production by a mammoth amount.

    For soya beans, soya production has increased from 1.5m tonnes in 1970 to 119m tonnes in the 2017-2018 harvest

    In 1970, some 27.3m tonnes of grain was produced from 21.4m hectares. In 2018, these numbers rose to 219.2m tonnes from a planted area of 58.1m hectares.

    For soya beans, soya production has increased from 1.5m tonnes in 1970 to 119m tonnes in the 2017-2018 harvest. In the same time period, the area planted increased from 1.3m hectares to 35.1m hectares.

    Figures from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics show that between 1975 and 2018, sugarcane production increased from 91.5m tonnes to 672.9m tonnes.


    Brazilian beef production is forecast to rise 2.6% per annum up to 2021. A rise is also forecast in the amount of cattle for finishing which will be fattened in feedlots.

    Currently, 13% of Brazilian beef cattle for finishing are fattened at feedlots – over 5m cattle fattened in feedlots in 2018.

    By 2020, it is expected that 20% of Brazilian cattle will be fattened in feedlots.


    Dairy farmers are also in expansion mode. A recent Milk Point survey of the top 100 dairy farmers in Brazil found that 90% of dairy farmers have plans to increase cow numbers in the next three years.

    As of 2018, the largest dairy herd in the South American country was producing an average of 73,730l/day. This figure was up 9% on 2017.

    When it came to cost of production in 2018 for the top 100 farmers, the survey revealed:

  • 52% had a cost of production of between 24c/l and 31c/l.
  • 30% had a cost of production of between 29/l and 33c/l.
  • 12% had a cost of production of between 20c/l and 24c/l.
  • Coffee

    The US was the top destination for Brazilian coffee in the first quarter of 2019, with 1.8m 60kg bags of coffee exported there. The US was followed by Germany with 1.7m bags and Italy with 1m bags.

    Total exports of Brazilian coffee in the first quarter of 2019 reached 10m bags, with a value of €1.15bn.

  • Grain production: 225m tonnes.
  • Meat production: 25.26m tonnes.
  • Milk production: 35bn litres.
  • Fruit: 38.7m tonnes.
  • Read more

    Brazilian agriculture in numbers

    Diversifying into soya beans from sugar cane in Brazil

    Uncertainty has become the new normal
    Farmers have always had to deal with the uncertainties of prices, weather and things like CAP reform, but Brexit overshadows all of those issues.

    Farmers across the island of Ireland live with uncertainty – it is part of the business. It also has many forms. The two major ones traditionally are market prices for farm produce and production costs often driven by unseasonable weather or market forces outside farmers’ control. All of these cause uncertainty for farmers but they are predictable uncertainties, normal business risks that go with the territory of being a farmer. Periodically, there are other issues such as changes in Government policy, CAP reform and EU trade negotiations which have an impact on agriculture.

    Immediate Brexit impact

    Brexit has brought a whole new level of uncertainty to farming on the island of Ireland and in Britain, with the potential of being extended to the entire EU if there is a no-deal Brexit. This uncertainty began as soon as the vote was announced, with a big drop in the value of sterling against the euro, leading to an immediate cut in process paid to farmers for produce, particularly beef that was dependent on the UK market.

    In the almost three years since, the news has been filled with Brexit stories and what would happen to the economies of the EU and UK. Multiple options for future trading arrangements have been explored but the bottom line is that within hours of the second Brexit deadline, uncertainty continues to prevail. The latest twist to what has become a soap opera – is the soon to depart UK prime minister trying to cobble a deal together with the opposition Labour Party, which is as divided as her own.

    Another trip to Brussels

    As we go to press, the UK prime minister is making her way to the latest heads-of-state meeting in Brussels looking for another extension – this time to 30 June 2019. Parliament has instructed her to seek an extension rather than depart without a deal this Friday night at 11pm. The general feeling in Brussels this week is that while the wider EU is frustrated by the UK, there is also a desire to avoid a no-deal Brexit as well, not least because of the chaos it would cause both sides of the Irish border. It has become increasingly clear that no matter how much talk there may be about not wanting a hard border on the island of Ireland, it is inevitable if the UK leaves the EU and becomes a third country trading under WTO rules from 11.01pm on Friday night. Details have been emerging over recent days of the logistics that would be required to trade in this new environment. It would involve 24-hour notice of shipments and entrance at one of the approved ports. That is before the prohibitive impact of WTO tariffs was calculated, something that in itself would effectively stop trade on a north-south basis.

    Irish trade

    If the worst was to happen with a no-deal Brexit, there would be greater flexibility for Irish trade with Northern Ireland and Britain, at least in the short-term. The UK government, when it published its tariff schedule a few weeks ago, made clear that Irish exports to the North would continue uninterrupted for all produce and even produce from the Republic of Ireland to Britain could continue to transit through Northern Ireland tariff and inspection-free if that was the route they historically used.

    Irish exports to Britain directly would become subject to tariffs immediately, which would put a stop to lamb sales because they are set at full WTO rates and hinder butter and cheddar even though they are at a relatively low level of €200t and €400t respectively. Beef would probably be OK in the short-term because of the tariff quota and the fact that there would be a lead-in period before South American countries could take full advantage of it.

    Ultimately, another Brexit extension for the UK would mean a no-deal Brexit is avoided for now. However, for farmers as well as the usual battles with nature and the markets, the uncertainty of Brexit is going to prevail for some time to come.