Juhudi Kilimo couples loans with training for smallholder farmers in Kenya

Access to financing is one of the biggest challenges smallholder farmers in Africa face. A Nairobi-based social enterprise is hoping to increase agricultural productivity in Kenya through its efforts in financing agricultural assets for smallholder farmers.

Nat Robinson

Nat Robinson

Started as an initiative of NGO K-Rep Development Agency, Juhudi Kilimo is offering a mix of financing, training and market linkages to a sector that is underserved by commercial banks and micro finance institutions (MFIs).

Juhudi Kilimo CEO Nat Robinson told How we made it in Africa that the social enterprise offers loans for assets that can generate income and act as collateral such as “high-yield dairy cows, poultry, irrigation equipment [and] greenhouses”.

“If you look at why banks and MFIs don’t finance farmers, it’s because they are perceived as high-risk, it’s high cost to get out to those rural areas, but, most importantly, there is no collateral and there is no business income.”

Juhudi Kilimo works with 24,000 farmers in rural Kenya. Farmers can get a first loan of up to KSh 65,000 shillings (US$742) for a dairy cow.

Juhudi Kilimo has partnered with NGOs and government extension service officers to offer training and information on new farming methods to farmers in rural Kenya. To help farmers access markets, Juhudi Kilimo is working with other players in the value chain such as rural milk cooling plants and poultry aggregators.

“You can’t just give them financing and walk away. I think that is irresponsible. We do two months of training before our farmers take loans. In that is good governance training, financial management training [and] a little bit of agri-business training so that they are really ready to take this loan. For a lot of these farmers, we are their first exposure to a financial service.”

Robinson said because of the training and market linkages, Juhudi Kilimo has had very low loan defaults, proving that financing farmers is not as risky as perceived.

“We generally have between 2% and 3% of our portfolio that we have to write off. Our repayment rate has been at 95% and above for the last four and a half years. So, we find the farmers not to be very risky at all,” said Robinson.

Juhudi Kilimo has avoided cash crops such as tea and coffee which are sold to export markets in the US and Europe because global prices are volatile, making it more risky and less beneficial to farmers.

“What’s great about milk, poultry and growing any other food crop is that you can eat it. Not only are [these products] financially beneficial, but they can also help your family if you are not producing enough.”

Technology as a tool

Juhudi Kilimo is incorporating technology in its efforts and was recently honoured with a CIO 2013 Global Award for technology innovation at a ceremony in the US.

“All of our loans officers have been equipped with Samsung tablets. One of the things we are experimenting with is showing training videos and training presentations on the tablets that are very specific and technical to agriculture. That way our loan officers don’t have to be experts and they can just show the video and get people to understand a bit more about how to take care of their animals.”

Mobile technology innovations that promise to help farmers access markets and information have been celebrated on the continent, but adoption has been poor with most farmers still relying on radio for information. Technology developers, Robinson argued, need to spend a lot of time with farmers to ensure innovations are easy to use.

“Look at the generation; most of the farmers are over 40… they are not as tech savvy as the new generation coming in. I think it will take time for these new tools to be adopted. I think that is a mistake a lot of the Nairobi-based developers are making. They don’t understand what’s ‘normal’ – having your mobile phone or your smartphone isn’t the case out there on the farm.”

Food security

With the African population expected to continue growing in coming years, demand for food is set to rise, yet agricultural productivity rates are low, even falling in some countries. Robinson argued that this opens up a market that other service providers such as banks, insurance companies and training institutions should tap into.

“I think [farming] should be a very big priority for everyone. It is a big untapped market. We could easily grow to 400,000 clients just in the areas that we are operating in. There are so many farmers out there that are in need.”

According to Robinson there is need for a social shift to address intergenerational hurdles that may hamper food security in the future. For the Kenyan youth who seem to be more drawn to sectors such as technology and prefer to live in urban areas, venturing into agriculture is not an attractive proposition.

“A lot of the rural youth don’t see farming as exciting or cool or fun. Parents too don’t necessarily want their children who have gone through school to be farmers. The reality is you can do much better as a farmer now than if you go into the city to try to find a job,” said Robinson. ”I think there is a big social shift that needs to happen; to really recognise farming as a business not just as a way to subsist or a retirement plan.”

Juhudi Kilimo will focus on including more young people in its programme beginning next year. By 2015, the social enterprise plans to be financing 100,000 farmers in Kenya and eventually expand into other East African countries.

Robinson said there are a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors to do well in agriculture.

“If you apply all the modern technologies and techniques to farming you can do very well as a farmer. In fact, you can grow your farm to the point that you don’t even need to manage it yourself, you can have other people take care of your cows, your chickens.”