CKL Africa – Agriculture for Today

CKL Africa has been present in Kenya since 1906 in one form or another. We learn how a company with a long history is bringing Kenyan agriculture into the 2020s.

It began as a subsidiary of a British firm, Coopers, as a dealer in animal health products. Then in 1990, the company changed hands to become a locally-owned firm, expanding its remit beyond animal health to a whole range of agricultural inputs and animal nutrition.

“We bring products to market that help farm productivity for our customers, ideally while increasing food production for Africa,” says Mucai Kunyiha, CKL Africa’s CEO. “We have a big focus on the farmer and being able to get the product to the farmer where he needs it.”

This means a focus on distribution, communication, and providing access to the farmer at their point of need.

“When and where there’s a problem, that’s when he needs the solution, not later,” Kunyiha points out.

CKL Africa’s focus is on small and medium-sized farms, businesses that are often working hand-to-mouth, without the spare capital to fund themselves or plan ahead. This makes access to CKL Africa’s products critical.

“The biggest challenges we face are technical training, ensuring customers understand new products and how to use them,” Kunyiha says. “I think for farmers as well as our customers, consistency in purchasing is determined by the markets so we need to develop agricultural markets in Africa.”

While people will always need to eat, the agriculture sector can exist on a knife-edge while trying to anticipate demand and ensure supply is there to meet it.

“Because there is no matching of demand and supply, farming as a business becomes high risk. Whatever a farmer grows there’s no visibility on whether they will be able to sell their produce or at what price, killing the motivation to improve productivity to meet market demand,” explains Kunyiha. “That’s one of the broader issues in the industry and it affects the adoption of technology and new ideas.”

“Actual investment in the agricultural sector remains woefully short of what the African Union has prescribed as a minimum,” Kunyiha tells us.

“The target is around 10% of GDP and we’re not really there,” Kunyiha tells us.

Spreading the Word

To try and bring agricultural efficiencies and productivity up to the level they should be at, CKL Africa is engaged in a determined effort to demonstrate how they can benefit farmers.

“We have included some level of economic training to help farmers understand the economics of their industry; that way they can see how expensive low farm productivity actually is,” Kunyiha says. “Cattle has historically been one of our core business lines. If you have a cow producing less than ten litres a day, and our average in Kenya is below that, closer to eight-and-a-half litres a day, it is loss-making. So we’re convincing farmers that even at a subsistence level there’s a level of efficiency you need to attain to keep going.”

The trouble is, many farmers, who spend each and every day tending to and managing their own farms, might be sceptical of some “expert” swooping in from outside to tell them how to do their job. The solution, Kunyiha shows us, is to leave the teaching to other farmers.

“One of the things we’ve done is demonstration farms. The interesting thing is there are still pockets of very good progressive farmers. If you go to an area you will find good farmers adopting modern technology, producing good levels of output,” Kunyiha says. “We look at these and attract other farmers in the neighbourhood to visit and understand that farmer’s rationale around the farming. We have farmers teaching each other rather than us parachuting in and showing them how to do it.”

Greener Pastures

At the same time as offering skills development for the farmers they serve, CKL Africa is also looking for people whose skills it can develop as part of the CKL Africa team. The company has a network of distributors across the country and through them, CKL Africa is able to reach approximately 8,000 small shops in the villages and market centres. This gives the company access to people who are interested in the industry. The local promoters that CKL has employed to help farmers in these communities can develop their careers and rise up through the company.

“We’re recruiting at the grassroots level people who are interested in the products and demonstrating the skills we need,” Kunyiha tells us.

However, reputation also plays a vital role.

“A lot of recruitment has to do with maintaining a good corporate brand. Our ESG credentials help with that,” Kunyiha says.

Part of the reason for CKL Africa’s name change was so that its brand reflected the company’s new identity. While the company has always been involved in animal health, a series of mergers and acquisitions along with organic growth had led to the company discovering it is capable of more than that.

“As we’ve grown, we’ve realised although we work in animal health our corporate goal is enabling Africa to achieve global standards of food production,” Kunyiha says. “Animal health is a core part of that but it is not enough, so we broadened into productivity, crop protection and crop production. We also branched into animal nutrition. So we intend to keep broadening out into other areas of agriculture.”

One area where this is particularly important is in the green revolution, which in some ways has yet to reach Africa. While the solutions for greener farming are out there, they are tailored for large scale farming where CKL Africa is serving the small and medium-scale farmer.

“You have to be cognizant of their circumstances,” says Kunyiha. “They might not have funding for large volumes of inputs, or the husbandry systems they’re using are not what you’d find in other developed countries. So we’re finding inputs from the global market that can be adopted. That is what we are looking for, scouring the market for innovations while trying to make our own innovations here.”

For CKL Africa those innovations include a brand-new facility for mineral supplements, which opened in 2019. It produces about 5,000 tons a year for dairy cattle.

“We just invested US$70 million to upgrade production facilities and become more efficient, providing farmers with different varieties and new products on the nutritional side,” Kunyiha says. “That was phase one. We’re now working on the next phase of the same facility where we want to expand pharmaceutical production and upgrade it to the latest manufacturing standards at the same site.”

The expansion also includes a substantial effort to improve the plant’s environmental footprint.

“We have included a solar electricity plant with 540 solar panels on our roof producing about 360 MW hours to subsidise our electricity generation, providing a solution to both a cost issue and an ESG challenge,” says Kunyiha. “One thing Africa has for free is sunlight so we might as well use it for better production and pricing!”

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