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Chinese hand tractors heralding a new era of cheap mechanised farming in Kenya

By Kenyan photojournalist John Mark Omondi, first published in abridged form in The County. Note: John Mark Omondi’s images of Chinese hand tractors in Kenya was included in the Africa-China Photo Exhibition 2018, and won second prize in the Exhibition. This is the story behind the images.

Most of Sub-Saharan farmlands are still cultivated with hand hoes and agricultural processes are done manually thanks to the prohibitive costs of machinery from the West and a gradual devaluation of African currencies. This has led to very high costs of agricultural inputs and stunted progress towards full scale mechanization of farm productivity.

Kenyan farmers using a China-made handtractor to plough their farm in Kajiado county, Kenya (John Mark Omondi)

A 2005 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) report gave recommendations concerning this major challenge: “If agricultural mechanization efforts are to succeed in Africa, there is an urgent need for all concerned be they farmers, supporters, planners or policy makers to understand and contribute to agricultural mechanization efforts in Africa across the entire farming systems and the value chain”.

It is with this in mind that African Union (AU) identified mechanization of farming and agricultural value chain processes as one of the key areas that needs to be prioritized in the AU’s Agenda 2063, dubbed “The African we want”, where it is suggested in the first of seven aspirations that “the hand hoe will be banished by 2025”.

On average, 700-1,850 tractors are in operation per 1,000 farmers in Europe and North America. But exceptionally low levels of mechanization can be observed in many developing countries and in Kenya’s case, a mere five tractors are in operation in a population of 1,000 farmers. This clearly illustrates the urgent need to fill the gap in order for rural farmers to have a realistic chance of having regular access to tractor services for their smallholding farms that cater for the bulk of cereals and horticulture consumed in the five major urban centers of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru and Eldoret.

Kenyan agriculture extension officers introducing a Chinese hand tractor to local farmers in Nairobi (John Mark Omondi)

In the Kenyan context, previous efforts by successive governments to stem this tide failed to register success owing to a number of factors that led to the failure of such projects, with the majority of citizens citing  mismanagement, nepotism and corruption as the root causes of the failure.

State-sanctioned tractor-for-hire services, heavily subsidized by tax payers’ money, proved unsustainable with constant reports of lack of spares, fuel and services. In addition to that, the large tractors provided were not suitable for smallholder farm plots due to lack of proper networks of rural access roads. With the long distances involved and high fuel consumption, the scheme collapsed leading to  lumps of malfunctioning tractors in government yards all over the country.

On the other hand, Western technology, once the preferred choice when it comes to farm machinery, has become increasingly expensive and less suitable for Kenyan smallholder farmers over the years. A single European made tractor goes for an average of Ksh1.2 million (US$11,425), and this figure is hard to raise quickly for  an average smallholder farmer in rural areas. The prohibitive costs involved have made it almost impossible for these farming communities to procure tractor services.

The Guyue brand Chinese hand tractor (John Mark Omondi)

Over 60% of farm workload in Kenya is still provided for manually, with overbearing consequences falling on the shoulders of women, the elderly, and the youth. This has made this once noble vocation to be frowned upon by the younger generation who prefer to migrate to urban areas, and with high rates of unemployment, often end up resorting to crime as a source of earning a living. This kind of rural urban-migration has exerted unnecessary pressure on the cities’ urban infrastructure i.e. housing, sewage, roads, etc. since the large influx was not planned for by the city authorities.

Enter the Guyue

This state of affairs is set to change owing to a handful of Chinese hand tractor companies that have set up shop in Kenya. The Guyue brand is the most prominent along with the Nairobi-based Nileblock. The Guyue is fast, strong and most importantly fuel-efficient and affordable. The machine is easy to operate and the spare parts are readily available from the numerous outlets found in most urban centres across the country. The supplying company who launched its services in Nairobi and is based in Kasarani suburbs designed a product that is relevant, accessible and convenient; a hand tractor that has convinced the majority of smallhold farmers that it’s made exclusively for their needs.

The Guyue hand tractor is not a large tractor so it’s not expensive to own for farmers with marginal holdings; it’s a tractor they understand and identify with. The 15 HP diesel walking tractor comes with additional implements such as anti-wrapping blades, and is therefore able to plough, make ridges and dig trenches for planting. The hand tractor can also be modified to pump water for irrigation by attaching a small pump of 10 metres suction depth, ideal for pumping distances between 30 to 100 meters and best for watering small horticultural gardens.

A 10 HP version is also available, it works perfectly with few maintenance needs and low fuel consumption. These machines come with attachments like metal wheels, a ditch opener and tilling  blades. A side plough goes for Ksh3,500 (US$33), metal wheels for Ksh4,500 (US$43) and the pump is priced at Ksh7,000 (US$67).

This tractor saves time and money, as farmer Michael Gondi of Siaya county testifies. “Last year I planted the crops in four weeks and the labour charge cost me Ksh40,000 (US$381), while through the use of a combination of the walking tractor and the weeding machine, the work was done in a week and I spent half the amount”. Another farmer from the county, Odero Jowie, lauds the walking tractor for its efficiency. “I planted three acres in one day with seven labourers, one operator making tranches using the tractor, two putting fertilizer, three putting seeds, and one covering the seeds using the applicable machine. The total fuel consumption was only ten liters of diesel”.

The Guyue comes with additional benefits as far as maintenance is concerned; it has an easy to understand manual that requires operators to undertake the following maintenance procedures

  • Before using the weeding machine, farmers are advised to check the oil level to see if it’s between the upper and lower scale of the oil dipstick; oil replacement is required after 5 to 10 working hours. Change of oil to be done when the engine is still warm. Once oil gets dirty, say after 40 working hours, the operator needs to clean the engine crankcase and refill with new oil
  • It should be ensured that oil is not too much, otherwise it will cause the following problems: Black smoke, lack of engine power ( too much cylinder coke, spark plug too small), overheating, etc.
  • Too little oil can cause problems too, like gear noise, accelerated wear and damage of the piston ring and cylinder
  • Air filtration maintenance: Before and after use, air filtration should be checked and if found to be dirty, cleaned because a dirty air filter makes it hard to start the engine. Recommended method includes using gasoline for cleaning and applying lubricant oil to absorb dust particles
  • Radiator: With heat dissipation while in use the radiator can get clogged with dust and grass affecting the cooling system which may cause serious damage to the engine

With these simple steps farmers are good to go.

According to the company CEO Ms. Amy Liao, the hand tractor is more than a motor and wheels; it is a way of life and a source of livelihood for hundreds of small scale farmers who have been introduced to it. The Guyue hand walking tractors are  facilitating a leap forward not just for small scale farmers but also for established ones who have adopted it for secondary farm activities like moving crops or as  a boom sprayer. It has boosted productivity thus allowing farmers to let go traditional methods and launch into a new era of cheap mechanized farming.

Adoption of hand tractors for smallholder farming is a clear indicator of the impact Africa-China cooperation, which has identified agricultural productivity and food security as priority areas. Over 100,000 units are sold annually across Africa in Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya. With poor terrain and narrow rural access roads, the size and the type of tractors matter. In small scale farming, large equipment is expensive and uneconomical. The current convenient and ideal tool of choice is the 10 HP and 15 HP hand tractors. Guyue has turned out to be a hand tractor with tremendous impact, changing lives and heralding a new era of low cost agricultural mechanisation.

Farmers with small or marginal land holding like Michael Gondi are who Guyue had in mind when designing the tractor that costs US$1,000. In a country where  70% of the people own five acres or less, with the remaining acreage fully occupied by the established farmers, access to farm mechanisation that creates a lasting impact is in line with the government’s efforts and commitments towards achieving  sustainable development goals as stipulated in the country’s Vision 2030.These walking hand tractors have proven to be more suitable for local conditions and are considerably cheaper, easy to operate  and convenient for small-scale farmers who account for the bulk of the country’s food production.

While many were skeptical about the euphoric uptake  of the hand tractors, claiming  they will lead to joblessness, the Chinese hand tractors have been found to have little negative effects if any on hired labour since more jobs and opportunities arise with more acres under cultivation. For example, they advance secondary employment related to the agricultural value chain and machinery-related services such as spare parts, supplies, fuels and lubricants and factory assembly plant jobs. These hand tractors also offer women and youth in rural areas boundless opportunities; mothers now have more time for their children, and also are able to attend to other household chores and responsibilities.

Investment in Chinese hand tractors has created unrivalled opportunities for lasting wealth creation that has the potential of lifting the masses out of poverty. It provides assistance to transition farmers from subsistence crop and local market sales to products suitable for higher value and international markets, therefore increasing their income and creating a more robust industry value chain of farm production and processing in the long run.

Until recently, Chinese involvement in Kenya’s agricultural sector was largely focused on technical assistance  and capacity building, however in the interest of sustainability, development of markets and the potential for expanded trade, China has facilitated public-private partnerships providing incentives for its agribusiness corporations to establish  outlets in Kenya’s agricultural industry.

This kind of people-to-people exchange and engagement is emphasised in Africa-China partnerships geared towards socio-economic empowerment of African countries in their quest for middle income status. In this context, smaller Chinese firms, SMEs and individual entrepreneurs have secured opportunities in the agriculture sector to increase smallholder farmers’ incomes, create jobs and drive local economic growth, creating a more robust industry value chain for cereal production and processing and in the long run improving nutrition and empowering women. With lessons and experiences from its own agricultural transformation and by transferring cutting-edge technologies to African countries and helping them increase their own capacity for innovation, China is laying a road map for agricultural modernisation in Africa.

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