Livestock Research for Rural Development 26 (7) 2014 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD Newsletter

Citation of this paper

Challenges of conversion to organic dairy production and prospects of future development in integrated smallholder farms in Kenya

C Odhong’, R G Wahome1, M Vaarst2, M Kiggundu3, S Nalubwama3, N Halberg4 and S Githigia1

Department of Animal Production, University of Nairobi, P. O. Box 29053-00625, Nairobi, Kenya
1Department of Animal Production, University of Nairobi, P. O. Box 29053-00625, Nairobi, Kenya
2Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, Aarhus University, P. O. Box 50, 8830 Tjele, Denmark
3Department of Livestock and Industrial Resources, Makerere University, P.O. Box 7062, Kampala
4International Centre for Research in Organic Food Systems, P. O. Box 50, 8830 Tjele, Denmark


Certified organic livestock production does not exist in Kenya, yet livestock forms an integral part of many organic farms due to their role in nutrient recycling. The purpose of this study was to identify the challenges of conversion to organic dairy production. 55 semi-structured interviews of smallholder farmers with dairy cattle and organically certified crop enterprises in Kiambu and Kajiado counties were conducted to explore and discuss the factors that hinder conversion of their dairy enterprises.

The average age of the farmers was 52 years, 65% of them female. The farms averaged 3.8 acres, 87% privately owned, but skewed to the left with 75% of the respondent’s farms owning less than 3.8 acres and thus unable to produce sufficient fodder for their cattle. Cattle were kept mainly (63.5%) to augment income obtained from organic crop production. Artificial insemination was the only method used for breeding. With more than 5 years of crop-dairy integration, 61% of the farmers had considered managing their livestock organically. However, lack of organic inputs to control pest and diseases (78%) and lack of organic feed (64%) were identified as the most important constraints and hindrance for converting to organic dairy production. Future prospects for integrated organic dairy production in smallholder production systems therefore depends on the availability of research based advice on sufficient organic feed, disease and pest control inputs under local conditions.

Key words: animal welfare, certified organic production, livestock, small-scale


Organic agriculture considers ecological, social and ethical impacts of farming (IFOAM 2013). The adoption of the principles and practices of organic agriculture potentially enhances soil fertility, biodiversity and minimizes land degradation, erosion, poisoning and other negative effects of chemical activities on the environment (Diacono and Montemurro 2010; Vaarst 2010; Gabriel et al 2013).Organic agriculture is developing rapidly all over the world. Currently, certified organic farming is practiced in 160 countries, representing 37.2 million hectares of certified cropland and pasture. Global sales of certified organic food and drink reached US$54.9 billion in 2009 (Willer and Klicher 2012). In the Global South, organic production exists in two parallel forms, one which is mainly focused on certified organic farming for exports to Europe and USA and another – non-certified – mainly focused at improving food self-sufficiency using agro-ecological methods and often supported by NGO’s (Altieri 2012). In the Global North organic farming is mainly certified and driven by a combination of consumer demand and political support to the sector through agricultural payment schemes (Farnworth and Hutchings 2009; Willer and Klicher 2012). Consumer demand for certified organic products is mainly concentrated in North America and Europe with the two regions contributing 96 percent of global revenues of certified organic products (Willer and Kilcher 2012). Besides a large variety of organic crop products main livestock products sold are eggs and dairy products, with more than 10% of the milk in some European countries being produced organically (AFMA 2011, Organic Denmark 2012). The Organic market in Kenya is expanding rapidly with more than ten retail outlets in Nairobi and others scattered in the main towns selling organic products (UNEP-UNCTAD 2008). Emergence of organic restaurants and initiation of more organic markets is likely to increase the market for certified organic products. Moreover, with the growing middle class and the large number of international citizens in Nairobi it is not unrealistic to imagine markets for organic milk develop over the coming years.

Current developments in East Africa have mainly been made on the production and trade of certified organic cash crops and their products. Certified organic animal production systems are not developed, despite the fact that it has great potential to enhance food security by increasing the diversity of available food products in the rural area, provide protein food to people and contribute with manure to make a well-balanced nutrient cycle on the farms. It can furthermore contribute to increased incomes and improve the livelihood of families in tropical countries. It is therefore very relevant to explore the options and the constraints for integrating livestock into tropical organic farms in ways which stimulates the nutrient cycles, and contributes to farming system with synergy and harmony between the different enterprises.

Dairy production in sub-Saharan Africa is dominated by smallholder farming systems. Production in this system is generally characterized by integration of crops and livestock on land holdings of less than 5 ha, with one to 5 heads of cattle (Devendra 2001; Devendra and Thomas 2002; Wambugu et al 2011). Milk production in Kenya is also dominated by smallholder farms that are mainly concentrated in the Kenya highlands, areas with elevation of ≥ 1000m above sea level and the agro-ecological potential for cropping and dairying is medium to high; they use exotic and/ or crosses of exotic with local cattle breeds and produce more than 80% of the country’s marketed milk (Bebe et al 2003a, b; EPZ 2005; Wambugu et al 2011; Muriuki 2011).

According to the East African standards for organic dairy production, animal management allows the animal to express natural behavior, feeding is based on 100% organic feedstuff except in situation where organic feed is no available (maximum 40% of non-organic feed is allowed), and pest and disease management seeks to avoid the use of synthetic drugs (EAOPS 2007), thus preventive use of pest treatments is not allowed. Based on these production guidelines organic dairy production aims at sustaining animals in good health, realizing high animal welfare standards and producing milk of high quality. To be considered as organic a farm must be certified and produce following the standards set out in the East African Organic Product Standards (EAOPS).

The aim of this study was to explore and discuss the challenges, opportunities and prospects of current organic dairy production in Kenyan smallholder farms seen from farmers’ perspectives, and identify major factors for future development of the organic dairy sector in Kenya.

Materials and methods

Study area

Farmers who participated in the survey were from Kajiado county (Ngong) and Kiambu County (Dagoretti and Kikuyu). The two areas have the highest number of certified organic crops producers in Kenya supplying the Nairobi organic markets. Their main produce include vegetables (both exotic and indigenous; potatoes, green pepper, green peas), ginger, and okra. The areas are sub-humid and have an annual mean temperature of 10–18° C, a bimodal rainfall pattern higher than 800 mm annually and are ≥1000 m above sea level. Ngong is located 21 kilometers to the South West of Nairobi while Kikuyu and Dagoretti are located 18 and 20 kilometers West of Nairobi respectively.

Survey Methodology

A cross-sectional survey of 55 smallholder organic farmers with dairy cows and certified crop enterprises was conducted. Purposive sampling was used to identify certified organic farmers with dairy cattle. A list of all registered farmers in these areas was obtained from Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) and a local non-governmental organization known as Community Sustainable Agriculture and Healthy Environmental Programme (COSHEP). The farmers were contacted through phone calls and all the farmers with at least one dairy cow were subsequently interviewed at a place of their convenience. All the interviews were carried out either during farmer group meetings or at the farmer private homes. Each farmer was interviewed individually in both casesThe surveys were conducted in February 2012 and each interview lasted approximately 50 minutes.

Data Collection

Six enumerators with suitable qualifications (bachelor or higher degree; speaking Kiswahili and English), and experience in data collection were involved in conducting the survey. The team received one day’s classroom training to understand the survey questionnaire. Data collection was done through individual interviews, conducted in Kiswahili or English using semi-structured questionnaires with open ended and closed questions. The questionnaire was pre-tested to assess respondents’ comprehension of the concepts and wording of the questions. Interviews sought information related to organic certification status, farm characteristics, farmers’ dairy management practices, knowledge on organic dairy production, challenges to conversion to organic production and the prospects for future development of organic dairy production. Each interview was recorded and a detailed set of notes taken. Interviews were conducted of household heads, whom will be referred to as farmer’ throughout the article.

Data analysis

Descriptive statistics including analyzing for associations were generated from the data using SPSS for Windows version 14.02 (SPSS Inc., İ1989-2005).


Characteristics of the crop-dairy production system

Majority of the certified organic farms visited during the survey were managed by female farmers (65%) in both counties covered by the study. The characteristics of the farms and the farmers are presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Overview of the farmers and the farm characteristics in Kiambu and Kajiado
Characteristics Kiambu (n= 27) Kajiado (n= 28)
Median age of farmers (years) 53 55.5
Median land size (acres) 0.5 3.63
Median number of cows 1 3
Male 10 (37%) 10 (35.7%)
Female 17 (63%) 18 (64.3%)
Management system
Tethering 6 (22.2%) 6 (21.4%)
Zero –grazing 21 (77.8%) 22 (78.6%)
Main source of feed
Purchases from other farms 20 (74.1%)) 10 (35.7%)
Own production 5 (18.5% 16 (57.1%)
Collection from various sources 2 (7.4%) 2 (7.2%)

In Table 2, the age distribution and the farmers’ education level is given, and as can be summarized from this table, 52.76% of the certified organic farmers in both counties were educated beyond secondary education and were older than 50 years.

Table 2. Frequency of level of education completed and the age of the respondents
Level of Education Completed Age categories of respondent (Years)
<30 31-40 41-50 >50
Primary 3.63 - 1.81 10.91
Secondary - 12.73 1.81 23.64
College/University 3.63 9.09 3.63 29.12

The average size of each farm across the two counties was 3.8 acres with most of the farmers in Kiambu having less than 0.76 acres of land for both crop and livestock production. However, as illustrated in Figure 1, there was a large difference between the two counties in land distribution. Thus, the potential for growing feed and fodder for cows differ between the two counties, as also illustrated in Table 3.

Figure 1. Average size of Land owned by farmers in Kiambu and Kajiado

Farmers with less than 0.76 acres of land relied on feed purchases from other farms (64.71%) while majority of farmers with more than 3 acres of land produced their own livestock feed(93.33%) as shown in Table 3.

Table 3. Average size of land in acres and the source of animal feeds
Land size(acres) Own production Purchases from
other farmers
Various sources
<0.76 23.53 64.71 11.76
0.76-3.0 13.04 78.26 8.70
>3.0 93.33 6.67 -

Eighty seven percent of the respondents in Kiambu and Kajiado counties kept pure breeds of Holstein Friesian the rest kept different types of Friesian X Zebu crosses. Zero-grazing was the main system used in both areas (78%) while the rest practiced tethering. The size of land did not have an effect on the system of feeding the dairy cattle in average over both counties. Artificial insemination was the only method used for breeding. On 61% of farms family members were the main source of farm labour (no significant difference between the two study areas), while casual labour and permanent employment was used on 30% and 9% of the farms in Kiambu and Kaijiado, respectively. All the farmers financed their farming activities through personal finances. All the farmers did not keep regular records of animal production, animal health or breeding. Exotic and indigenous vegetables were the main type of crop grown in both counties, and the farms were generally diversified with 15 types of crops to supply the local markets. The main crop grown include: kales, tomatoes, onions, spinach, cabbage and cauliflower.

Reasons for keeping dairy cattle

Seventy six percent of the farmers had dairy cows within the farms where they grew their crop while the rest had their crops in different locations. Sixty one percent of the farmers have practiced crop-dairy production for more than 5 years, meaning that they had cows before they converted to organic crop production. The main reasons for integrating crops and dairy production in both counties were to get more income, to get manure for their crop enterprises and for home consumption of milk products (Table 4).

Table 4. Reasons given by the farmers for keeping dairy cattle on their organic farm (n=43)
Main reason for keeping dairy cattle on the farms* Kiambu (%) Kajiado (%)
Get more income 48.15 67.86
Use manure in their organic farms 29.63 50.00
Home consumption 33.33 42.86
Diversify production and spread risk - 3.57
Availability of feed for livestock - 3.57
*The options for responses were pre-formulated, and the farmers could choose as many options as they wanted.
Challenges of organic dairy production

Given a selection of pre-formulated challenges, the farmers in both counties reported that the most important barrier to conversion to organic dairy production at the moment was lack of organic inputs to control external and internal parasites especially ticks and helminthes, and secondly, lack of input to use for treatment of diseases like mastitis and East Coast Fever, Table 5. Smallholder dairy farmers expressed that they were not sure of the efficiency of some of the cultural or biological methods used to control pest and diseases. The second most abundant choice from the list of challenges to organic milk production was lack of organic feeds for livestock. One in three farmers also indicated that there was no market for organic livestock product in both counties. Most of the milk produced by the farmers was sold locally, and the possibility of earning higher prices from organic milk production was low. Other challenges chosen by the farmers are presented in Table 5.

Table 5. Farmer perceived challenges for converting the dairy herd and milk production to organic production in accordance with the East African organic standards (n=55).
Percieved challenges for converting to organic dairy production Kiambu (%)
Kajiado (%)
Lack of organic input to control pest and diseases 85 71
Lack of organic feeds 56 71
Lack of capital/ land 44 61
Lack of market for organic livestock products 37 36
Lack of training on organic dairy production 19 32
Low production from organic production 22 25
Lack of labour - 14
Climatic conditions e.g. drought - 14
Lack of support from government 4 7
*The options for responses were pre-formulated, and the farmers could choose as many options as they wanted


Age of the farmers

A significant proportion of the smallholder farmers surveyed (62%) were over 50 years old. Mburu et al, (2007) studied smallholder dairy cattle enterprises in different agro-ecological zones in Kenya highlands and found that the average age of the farmers was 53. The fact that so few young farmers are on the farm could partly be explained by the fact that household heads often will be the oldest generation of the family. Nevertheless, it can also point to a potential risk for the sector in the future, and indicate a need for incorporation of the youth in development programs and education that stimulate organic agricultural development, and makes farming attractive both as agricultural and rural development as well as a business opportunity.

Small land size a challenge for crop livestock integration and animal welfare

The characteristics of certified organic farms with dairy cattle is not distinctly different from other mixed smallholder farms in the region in terms of land size, animal numbers and breeds kept(Devendra and Thomas 2002; Wambugu et al 2011; Muriuki 2011). Integration of crops and dairy production is the common practice in this system due to the critical role played by livestock in provision of manure used to maintain soil fertility and extra farm income. It is only relevant to talk about crop-livestock integration when the crops and livestock complement each other on the farm, so that crop residues and by-products are used as feeds for cattle, and manure from livestock are used in crops (De Haan et al 1997), and that the different livestock species fit into the farm and help creating a whole farming system in terms of closed nutrient cycles. The farm land sizes were very small, partly due to high population density, inter-generational inheritance of land (subdivision and fragmentation), and the rapid growth of the city of Nairobi into these areas (Mabiso et al 2012). Besides, small land sizes create a challenge to animal welfare needs, in terms of allowing the cow(s) to graze and express natural behavior, because it is not possible when producing crops. It points to the necessity of intensifying both crop and dairy production in these areas, and to find ways to reduce land fragmentation and to ensure that smallholder farmers can efficiently use land to support organic dairy production.

Organic feed and animal nutrition, a question of prioritization?

Lack of organic feeds was an important barrier to conversion to organic dairy production as well as to fully integrate the crop and livestock production on farms, since most of the farmer did not grow their own pasture or feeds for dairy cattle and had to depend on purchases from other farms. According to the East African Organic Product Standard, at least 60% of feed for dairy cattle must be organic (EAOPS 2007). In addition, there was no means to ascertain if the purchased feed was organic or not. The lack of feed resources was mentioned as one of the main challenges and a reason for keeping the herds small. A well-balanced farming system is characterized by the ability to sustain itself in a closed nutrient cycle, and hence, both fodder production and production of any other crop is limited to the size of land available. However, in Kajiado more than 54% of organic farmers had more than 5 acres, which would potentially allow production of significant amounts of fodder for the cows. Thus, this might be an economical question; which pays better for the famers, cash crops or organic milk? Increasing human population and urbanization in the study areas is expected to increase the pressure on arable land, but maybe also increase the demand for good quality milk for human consumption. Smallholder farmer must develop strategies ensure consistent supply of sufficient feed for their dairy cattle.

Pest and disease management

Results suggested that lack of organic input to control pest (ticks and helminthes) and diseases (Mastitis and East Coast Fever) was one of the important barriers to conversion. Organic farming relies on ecological based practices such as biological management, and prohibits use of synthetic chemicals without veterinary supervision. Comparative studies in Europe show that gastrointestinal worms and lungworms diseases are more abundant in organic farms (Hoglund et al 2001; Vaarst and Thamsborg1994) while recent studies in Brazil revealed no significant difference on the population of gastrointestinal helminths in dairy cows kept in organic and conventional production system (da Silva et al 2012). The main challenges to health in both conventional and organic farm in Europe are lameness, mastitis and infertility (Lotthammerand Wittkowski 1994).The health of dairy cows in organic farms is same or better than those in conventionalfarms (Sundrum 2001; Lund and Algers 2003). Unlike in Europe where most of the disease challenges are production diseases, the major constraints to livestock production in East Africa are vectors and vector-borne diseases exemplified by ticks and East Coast fever (Nalubwama et al 2011). Control of these diseases is often heavily dependent on the use of acaricides (Vaarst et al 2006). This point to the need for more scientific research on organic practices to prevent and handle pests and diseases. It could be development of technologies which can be commercialized or used by farmers from their own production e.g. of plants and herbs. Knowledge and information also need to be more commonly available, and in many cases generated to fit specific contexts. Organic dairy production will probably be difficult to achieve without access to natural remedies for pest and diseases.

Record keeping

The observation that majority of the smallholder dairy farmers do not keep production, reproduction and health records is in agreement with other studies (Chagunda 2006; Tebug et al 2012). This makes it difficult to get information related to the performance of the farms. This is one area where farmers need to learn and improve their practices to use the business opportunities of organic milk production, since record keeping is essential for daily farm management and for financial management of the dairy enterprise; verification of organic status of animals, production, harvesting, and handling practices associated with the organic products and animals and is a requirement by the organic standards to demonstrate compliance with the organic standards (EAOPS 2007).

Extension services

One in four of the interviewed farmers reported that lack of knowledge on organic dairy production practices as a major challenge. Intensive knowledge required supporting growth and development of organic production systems is not available in the public extension service. Van den Band and Hawkins (1988) recognized agricultural extension services as one of the factor that accelerates development. The National Agricultural Extension Policy (NAEP) advocates for a demand driven extension services and participation of the other players in the delivery system (Republic of Kenya 2004) but has little to offer in form of organic production. Developing tailor-made organic training on organic livestock production for extension officers will provide the much needed knowledge and skills required for transfer to the farmers.

Financing organic production

Conversion to certified organic dairy production requires financing to implement the basic requirement for certification. The high risks associated with agriculture makes potential creditors cautious about lending to the sector (Nyikal 2000). As a result, farmers have to depend on their own saving to invest in organic production which may limit opportunities for expansion. Financing of smallholder dairy farming should be a major concern if the sector is expected to thrive. There may be need to develop alternative sources of funding other than the competitive market since smallholder production does not exhibit effective demand for credit (Nyikal 2007).

Markets for organic dairy products

In Europe, organic dairy production is described as targeting a specific premium market that demands high quality standards during the whole production process (Sundrum 2001). Lack of organic markets and market access remains one of the fundamental factors holding back the development of the organic sector in the region (Valerian et al 2011). In Kenya, there is no specific market for organic milk even though potential may exist among the middle class and international community in Nairobi. However, growing consumers concerns about human health, food safety, animal welfare and environmental impact of intensive farming practices has led to increased interest in organic products. The Kenyan market for organic products is still small but the demands for organic products are expected to grow. The increase in numbers of supermarkets and restaurant offering organic foods is an indicator of the positive growth is this sector. Other reasons that have been attributed to the slow growth of organic sector in Kenya include lack of awareness, low-income levels, lack of local organic standards and other infrastructure for local market certification (Kalibwani 2004). With the publication of local organic standards and the development of local infrastructure for certification, challenges regarding product authenticity are being addressed. To increase demand and growth of organic production for livestock products more effort need to be focused towards creating awareness about the product and how it is produced, and the availability of the products. A number of strategies have been adopted by Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) to develop organic market in Kenya and beyond. These strategies include a promotion of organic products to in order to interest more consumers and build a consumer base and provision of technical service support through the Organic Market Assistance Programme (OMAP). The programme provides technical expertise in organic market and product development, advice farmers and assists producers in preparing for organic certification. Creating sustainable market opportunities to smallholder farmers will provide an incentive for continued production. As a way of expanding market opportunities for organic producers in Kenya, there is vital need to understand the complexity of the inter-related reasons why there has been little growth in the organic market activity in the region, and why organic farmers are not accessing these markets.

Policy framework

The development of the national organic agriculture development policy began in 2010. The policy is motivated by the fact that organic farming has the potential to feed more people, which has been demonstrated especially in tropical countries (Badgley et al 2006; Hine et al 2009; Halberg et al 2006), and that the production method and practices leave the environment strengthened rather than depleted for the future generations. The objectives of the national organic agriculture development policy are to promote the industry and give direction to the sub-sector; enhance production and development of the local and export market leading to increased income earned by the organic stakeholders and improved standards of living; strengthen and raise the profile of the sub-sector hence more support from both the public and private sectors and contribute towards poverty eradication and improved food and nutrition security. A comprehensive to ensure that the necessary political, technical and financial resources required to develop the subsector become available and to make clear the priority areas requiring support from development partners.

Conclusions and Future Perspectives

This study shows that conversion of smallholder dairy farms to certified organic production or organic farming in accordance with the IFOAM principles is mainly constrained by small land sizes, lack of organic feeds and animal disease handling products. An effort is needed within organic farmer communities to develop strategies to integrate the dairy production into the crop production and to consider the whole farm with both crop and dairy production a whole organic farm. The current insufficient advice on organic dairy production is partly based on a combination of lacking knowledge – which points to a need for research, which requires a research agenda – and lacking awareness among consumers and citizens on benefits of organic agriculture. Research is needed on a number of areas, e.g. organic disease handling practices. In other cases, research needs to be made available and put into practice. Development of organic farms always relies on the development of context specific strategies, which best can be developed in practice with farmers in collaboration with their organizations and extension agents. One main challenge, which could be a main driver for addressing this as part of development policies is to change the current inadequate market organization for organic dairy products (and organic products as a whole), to a situation where consumers value organic products, based on their product and processing qualities. Awareness creation on this should also be targeted in enabling policies. This could furthermore attract interest of credit and extension providers.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the smallholder organic farmers for their participation in study. Special thanks to Dr. Gidi Smolders for his assistance during data analysis and contributions to the paper. This study was funded by Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with the University of Nairobi through the Productivity and Growth in Organic Value Chain (ProGrOV) Project.


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Received 24 April 2014; Accepted 20 May 2014; Published 1 July 2014

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