Government and civil society led interventions have failed to reverse the shrinking agricultural economy— but that might just change, given the increasing private sector led interventions.
Agriculture, the backbone of Kenya’s economy, has not been able to ensure food security for the country despite the sector constantly outpacing others like finance, real estate and manufacturing and that it continues to employ approximately 80 per cent of the rural population.
One of the main reasons for this trend in Kenya, and across the region, is that there is low productivity per acre of land tilled due to the inability of (mostly poor) farmers to get affordable modern farming technologies.
Samuel Rigu saw this diminishing productivity growing up in a farm in Kinangop, an experience which has now led him to start producing cheaper fertiliser.
“As I grew up in a rural setting, I saw first-hand the diminishing harvest each year we planted maize,” Mr Rigu, the owner and founder of Safi Organics, told Enterprise during an interview.
“I knew something must be done to stop the struggles that poor farmers undergo. Smallholder farmers invest in expensive fertiliser which degrade their soils by raising the acidity levels.”
The 28-year-old produces environmentally friendly blend that enables affordable and decentralised conversion of farm waste into carbon-negative soil conditioner in under two hours.
This technology and idea has been developed in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
This “conditioner,” which he says can completely replace commercial fertiliser, helps farmers to improve their long-term crop yields by up to 30 per cent and double their income, according to the firm’s research.
Mr Rigu’s product, Safi Sarvi, is distributed in sacks of between two and 50 kilogrammes from the company’s factory in Mwea where he has set up the biomass converter units.
Safi Organics has also installed nearly 100 converter units for farmers at Sh2,500 ($25) a piece, a cheaper alternative than the capital-intensive large-scale products. These smokeless biomass waste converter is also entirely fabricated from locally available and replaceable parts.
Mr Rigu has a Bachelor of Science degree in Agribusiness Management from the University of Nairobi where he completed his studies in 2011.
A year later, he got a job as a manager at Turning Point farm which is based in his home area of Kinangop.
He quit his job in 2013 and went to Mwea where he set up a firm that could convert rice husks into briquettes but the idea flopped.
The budding entrepreneur then entered into a joint venture with Kapi Limited where they attempted to make eco-friendly mosquito coils from rice husks. This too failed.
In 2014, he started conducting trials for soil conditioning which culminated in him registering his company last year, opting to dedicate his time and farming knowledge into profitable use.
It converts biomass waste into soil conditioner 2,000 times faster compared to the traditional composting process.
And Mr Rigu is getting noticed.
Last month, his business beat over 800 submissions that were submitted for the Total Startupper challenge, which sought to recognise and finance African start-ups.
Safi Organics received Sh2.5 million from the competition’s sponsors, adding to the growing list of recognition that the company has received in under two years of its existence.
Mr Rigu says he will use the money to buy a pelleting machine, sealing machine, marketing and branding as well as leasing land to set up the production facility.
He is currently producing two tonnes of fertiliser per day but hopes that the capital injection will allow him to increase this to five tonnes per day by the end of this year.
The Total challenge is part of the French company’s global initiative of supporting the socio-economic development in all the countries in which it operates.
Safi organics has previously won other awards including the 2015 Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme, the 2015 Jacobs Startup Competition and the 2014 MIT IDEAS global challenge.
As the winner of the Kenyan chapter of the awards that was held in 34 countries, Mr Rigu will now represent the country in a continental competition for the best Start-up in Africa.