Many people in Nairobi and other towns and in the diaspora are ‘telephone farmers’. These are people who own or have bought, or inherited land, buildings, equipment on rural farms that they now support. They send money a few times a month for salaries and for operations of agricultural ventures that never seem to have any significant payback.
The owners probably read the Saturday newspapers with envy as they see other farmers holding up rabbits, bananas, watermelons or other bounty from their farms which earn them thousands of shillings every week or month.
The difference between them and the typical telephone farmer is that they are active investors as farmers, not passive which is what a faraway telephone farmer is. That leads to the first point about telephone farming.
- The goal of telephone farming is asset preservation, not income generation, and doing some economic activity on a distant farm protects it from invasion by squatters or grabbers.
- The social aspect: Telephone farming sustains the local community; it keeps a line of communication open and allows for the community to have a stake in the preservation of the asset as they go about their business. The picture (above) depicts what should be a banana farm, but clearly, the beans the workers are growing in the same field are doing much better. There might be pilferage, misuse of equipment, or other losses: but they should be within tolerable limits and not erode the underlying assets.
- The costs of farming are much lower for telephone farmers compared to other businesses investment in urban areas. E.g. labour costs are much lower: an amount of Kshs 2,000 is a salary on many farms, but that could be an electricity bill in Nairobi.
- A good rule of thumb for the telephone farmer is to be present at the farm during major operations like planting and harvesting.
The middle-man* is widely derided, as one of many layers of between farmers and consumers, who squeeze the farmers prices lower and increase the cost of foods to consumers. But what does a middle-man do, and why do they do it?
- The money is insane. e.g. Middle-men get paid Kshs 50 per (90kg) sack of potatoes at the village, and others get Kshs per sack at the market. With every lorry having over 100 bags, a middle-man can make over Kshs 10,000/= per day just dealing at a market. But how much he /she has to share this cut, with others around the market system is another story.
- Taxes: Cess/market fees are paid at the market of origin only. Along the highway, there are weigh-bridges, but lorry with perishable items can’t afford to stay and queue while items go stale or rot. So they pay Kshs 2,000 per lorry to bypass the weigh-bridge, and if they don’t have a cess receipt, it costs Kshs 1,000 to pass a police roadblock.
- The further the market is from the farm source, the bigger the profit for the transporter or middle-man e.g. transport all the way to Mombasa, or to Tanzania where a lot of Kenya produce ends up, and vice versa.
- It does not tolerate strangers. A farmer can’t just drive up with his lorry, and expect buyers to embrace him/her. It can even be murderous.
- It’s a relationship business. They have to network & know where to find and sell produce and deliver on time.
- Middle-men value and deliver on quality. If several lorries are waiting to clear at a market, they can choose the ones with produce from a certain area that is desirable compared to that from others. Also, lorries with produce from single farms are desirable over those collected from many different farmers or areas.
Middle-men travel far to search for farm products.
- We are the reason they exist. Hotels and restaurants need food like chips every day of the year, regardless of where the potatoes come from. The middle-man economy ensures that this happens.
- The business is hard work. The trades and operations are done very early in the morning, and end at about sunrise. This may tie in with the Equitel loans that start at 1 a.m. peak and are disburse by 5 a.m. before Equity Bank branches even open. When you visit a market in the daytime, you see retail trade & prices, while the wholesale business has already been completed.
- There is honour in this: Middle-men will under-cut each over deals, but will not cross each other on payments, which they do via mobile money or bank deposits.
- When farmers talk to middle-men about the money they make, some immediately want to abandon farming, while forgetting that they have one resource that the middle-man doesn’t – their land.
- * There are lots of women in the business – so “middle-man” can also mean “middle-woman”
- $1 = Kshs 100