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Since 1958, Kenya Seed has proudly been powering the Kenyan economy

28th Jun, 2017

The solution to increased productivity lies in the evolution of high yielding seeds. And for the last six decades, Kenya Seed Company has fed into Kenya’s food security ecosystem by developing hybrid seeds 

Everyone in Kitale is a farmer. Many people here have hardened hands which they nevertheless carry quite proudly.

In this town, some 6,000 feet above sea level, shoes have a noticeable brownish-reddish colour to them, accumulated from the fertile red soil. The secret to this area’s unparalleled agricultural production lies near the sprawling maize farms.

Approximately seven kilometres from Kitale town is found a vast 4,500 acre farm on the Mt Elgon slopes that stretches all the way to Endebess, another farming town on the border with Uganda.

That farm is behind the success of the Kenya’s bread basket, and indeed, the success of much of Kenya’s agriculture. A dedicated team of knowledge-thirsty researchers with backs hunched over microscopes and petri dishes of sprouting seeds work on this farm, looking for the next big thing in agriculture.

“We have some of the best minds in the world. No one can develop seeds for the future the way we do,” says Hosea Sirma the Production manager at Kenya Seed.  “People have tried to copy us. Australians, Americans, the Brits…. But none of them can match what we can do.”

For the last six decades, Kenya Seed has produced millions of seeds that have in turn gone into farms across East Africa, growing food that ultimately ends up on plates across East Africa.

Sirma stands well over 6 feet. He dresses in dull colours perhaps to camouflage the specks of dust that will cling to him each time he gets into the farm to inspect a species of maize.

“We are farm people,” he says proudly and matter-of-factly.

Sirma’s life revolves around seeds. The research development of new crop species, the test planting, harvesting, packaging and eventual supplying to farmers.

The company has fed into Kenya’s food security ecosystem through developing high quality certified seeds for maize, wheat, sunflower, finger millet, rice, legumes, sorghum, indigenous vegetables and horticultural crops. Kenya Seed supplies 75 per cent of Kenya’s maize seed – making it the most critical input into Kenya’s staple diet.

“The joy my team and I get from translating a research idea into an actual seed that is grown to feed the people is very fulfilling,” he says. He talks of seeds like a parent would talk of a child; proud and eager to show off.

Kenya Seed, his employer, is five years older than independent Kenya.

It was incorporated in 1958, as an enterprise to produce commercial Sunflower for the European bird feed market and to sustain its financial needs.  Five years later as the drumbeats of the independence struggle were beating across the plains, valleys and hills of Kenya, the company decided to take a risk into uncharted waters.

“In 1963 the company introduced hybrid seed maize production following the release of the first hybrids by the government research centre in Kitale,” Sirma says.

“Seed wheat was added to the seed program in 1971 to provide certified seed to farmers who previously depended on low quality farm saved seeds.” This program remains Kenya Seed’s strength to date.

“Later in 1979, the company acquired Simpson and Whitelaw, a company trading in horticultural seeds, and introduced the brand name Simlaw Seeds, which has since grown into a subsidiary of Kenya Seed.

In 2002 Simlaw Seeds was registered as a limited liability company and a subsidiary of Kenya Seed Company Ltd. Its core business is selling and marketing of high quality horticultural seeds, pesticides and fertilizers across East Africa.

Simlaw Seeds has a wide range of seeds which include cabbages, onions and tomatoes that are adaptable to various climatic conditions. They also bean seeds such as Red Kidney, New Rose Coco, Kenya Early as well as climber bean varieties such as Kenya Safi and Kenya Mavuno.

In the same year, Kenya Seed incorporated Kibo and Mt. Elgon seed Companies in Tanzania and Uganda respectively as an expansion strategy into the Eastern Africa market. Today, it boasts of a huge presence with a distribution network that straddles Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda.

But as Kenya Seed’s ambitions grew to transform it into an international company, so too has its needs. Its rapid expansion into other economically viable projects such as cattle keeping, coffee farming and the expansion of their research capabilities were taking a toll on operations. To manage this ambition, a partnership to buttress the financial aspects of the business became vital. They approached KCB Bank for this partnership.

“The relationship between Kenya Seed Co. (KSC) and KCB Bank spans over 20 years from when the company opened an account at the bank’s Kitale branch in 1996. We have had a long and cordial relationship over the years and the company currently enjoys working capital facility which has enabled KSC to grow in leaps and bounds,” Simon Peter Bett, Corporate Affairs manager at KCB Bank’s Eldoret branch said.

Bett says through this partnership, KCB Bank has been able to finance contracted growers through the Kenya Seed Growers product which enables farmers to acquire farm inputs during the planting season.

“Besides, we have also been able to finance several projects of Simlaw Seeds, a subsidiary of Kenya Seed, including the purchase of a Commercial Building for Simlaw Seeds Company Limited in Nairobi’s Kijabe Street,” he says.

With access to affordable credit available to both them and their farmers, Kenya Seed looks forward to a brighter future.

“There is a lot more we can do. We want to be the foremost research facility in the world,” Sirma says, his gaze firmly set on a gently setting sun. The researcher in him sees a maize plant that doesn’t quite look like the others around it. He pulls it out and throws the stalk on the ground.

“This stalk will help retain water in the soil…it will be like a small dam for the plants around it,” he says.

The farm has over the years been home to champion bulls that compete in the annual Nairobi Agricultural Trade Fair. Dozens of cows roam freely in the fields keenly watched by a minder. From a distance he points at bulls that are being groomed to be potential successors to last year’s champion bull which came from the Elgon Downs stable.

The 2017 long rains may have delayed, leaving farmers all anxious about their future. At Kenya Seed though, it is business as usual.

“We have seed that will fit the projected weather patterns of the next three years,” Sirma says. “Some of them have not been released yet.”

A gentle breeze comes over the farm and blows a dust storm in one of the numerous parcels of land being furrowed. The wind does little to distract the man on the wheel as he carefully pulls at a lever on the tractor that releases the harrow to the ground. He is patient and lets it rest completely before engaging the gear on his blue Massey Ferguson tractor.

“You see that man,” Sirma says pointing at the man on the tractor, “He has represented Kenya in the World Ploughing Competition for the past 15 years. He will do it again during this year’s competition that will be held in Kenya.”

The self-effacing driver smiles coyly, pulls down his baseball cap and drives off into the wind, leaving a cloud of red dust behind. We are left marveling at how straight the harrow lines are.

Kenya Seed’s ambition remains as vast as the plains surrounding the headquarters and the company is unafraid of reaching out and delivering more quality to the seeds – the base of the food production chain for Kenya’s food basket.

“We count on our partners KCB Bank to walk with us towards this destination,” Azariah Soi, the Managing Director says.

 

Kenya Seed Co.

 

1963: The company introduced hybrid seed maize production following the release of the first hybrids by the government Research centre in Kitale

1971: Seed wheat was added to the seed program to provide certified seed to farmers who previously depended on low quality farm saved seeds

2002: Simlaw Seeds, a subsidiary of Kenya Seed Company Ltd was registered as a limited liability company.

KCB Bank has been able to finance contracted growers through the Kenya Seed Growers product which enables farmers to acquire farm inputs.

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