"Agro-vet" is painted in block lettering on squat concrete buildings every few kilometers on the bumpy four-hour drive from Nairobi to Meru. The small shops sell feed, fertilizer, livestock products and other crucial inputs for smallholder farmers in the surrounding area. Drive further off the main road into Kenya's banana, maize, mango, sorghum and millet farming country, though, and the input businesses become few and far between.
It's there, far from anything that could be mistaken for urban, where Beatrice Nkatha set up shop. In 2009, Nkatha founded Sorghum Pioneer Agencies in the Mukothima marketplace of Tharaka Nithi county, a tooth-rattling 40 kilometer drive from Meru town center.
She supplies quality inputs like seed and fertilizer to farmers, and also buys their harvest, which is stored in one of her 50 aggregation centers in the surrounding area until it is sold in bulk to buyers such as East Africa Breweries. Business at her agro-vet — along with her 40 smaller franchises in the surrounding 35 kilometers — is booming, she told Devex.
Nkatha is effectively a "middle man" — or woman — in the agriculture value chain, and is part of a movement supported by organizations such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa to strengthen key links in the chain.
Traditionally a middle man role in business is considered one of exploitation, and certainly those fears exist with the agro-vet, also known throughout sub-Saharan Africa as an agro-dealer, who has the power to profit from rather than benefit local smallholders. But Nkatha's network of agro-input shops, for example, have greatly reduced the distance farmers need to travel to buy inputs, and her guaranteed purchase of produce, which she is able to aggregate to wait for more favorable pricing to sell in bulk, means local smallholders can count on the sales; last year she bought over 800 metric tons of sorghum, green grams and cowpeas. If run wisely, the middle man role of rural agro-vets may not one to cut out — and not only because they provide a means of spreading agricultural best practices and delivering new technologies to farmers. Seed and other input suppliers are increasingly relying on rural agro-dealer hubs to sell their stock.
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