Cover image courtesy of Farm Africa.
–by Ryan Fahey–
This article examines the current state of agriculture in the East African highlands, and how Farm Africa, a UK-based charitable organization, is helping drive economic progress. Farm Africa operates in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania, and trains farmers in methods to improve their farming and business practices. With a region rich in natural resources, Farm Africa focuses on better utilizing the resources and land that is available to farmers in their specific regions of operation. Their work has not only improved the efficiency and effectiveness of all kinds of farmers, but has additionally made a positive environmental impact in the wake of climate change concerns. Included in this article is an examination of what is both driving and limiting agricultural growth in East Africa, and what Farm Africa has done to assist in creating a more advanced Africa. Research and firsthand accounts will detail the major success of Farm Africa’s initial operations, and the ever growing work they must do to combat growing environmental threats. To conclude, climate change and the other factors inhibiting Farm Africa’s success will be examined. This article will examine the success of Farm Africa’s strategies in conservation farming using non-inversion tilling; fish and livestock management; and increasing crop output. An investigation into the impacts of these strategies will support and reaffirm Farm Africa’s claim of helping political, social and economic advancement in the East African highlands through their farming strategies. In addition, it will argue that Farm Africa can increase their efforts to aid farmers who are more isolated or have fewer resources.
What is Farm Africa?
After experiencing a great famine in Ethiopia in 1985, Farm Africa founders Sir Michael Wood and David Campbell realized that the best route to a healthier, more prosperous Africa was through farming. They founded Farm Africa shortly after, and have made it their goal to improve farming techniques in East Africa. Through their work, they have reduced poverty and spurred economic growth amongst some of the world’s poorest farmers. By providing supplies, education and training, Farm Africa has been a helping project in East Africa. They have helped farmers produce more, and in turn have helped stimulate economic growth and given East Africans greater access to healthy, clean food. While a great deal of their successes have happened in Kenya, they also have standing operations in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda. With a three-pronged approach focusing on agriculture, environment and business, Farm Africa claims to be “making change happen”. How successful have they been in making that change? Their work begins with connecting these farmers to global resources and connections that were not previously available.
Embracing a Global Community
From its founding in the UK to its network of employees across four countries in Eastern Africa, Farm Africa is well-connected with the global economy and can provide farmers with global access that was previously nonexistent. Farm Africa has enlisted the help of suppliers all across the globe to improve even the most basic functions of farming. For example, Kenya has struggled with a cycle of what is described as “low input, low output, low profit agriculture” (Farming First). Kenyan farmers do not have an abundance of crops to plant, and often the soil conditions will prevent a full yield of what crops are planted. Many Kenyans have seen the low profits associated with farming and have become discouraged from farming altogether. Lack of land and transport have also proven to be hurdles for more effective farming. As they believe farming is the key to health and economic improvements, Farm Africa has begun to devise a way to renew faith in farming and encourage Kenya’s younger generations to get back to farming. To accomplish this, they have partnered with international supermarket chain Aldi to create the Growing Futures project. This project focuses on informing, as it established “21 demonstration plots, where young farmers have learnt practical skills” which includes practices such as “crop rotation, irrigation, planting, harvesting and pest control” (Farming First). Partnering with Aldi has given Farm Africa a means to educate the next generation of Kenya’s farmers and allow them a chance to escape the cycle of low profit farming.
In addition to partnering with private businesses like Aldi, Farm Africa does not shy away from reaching out to governments. Farm Africa partnered with the European Union to better support cashew farmers on Kenya’s coast. With financial support from European countries, this new program aims to give “a total of 15,000 small-scale farmers support to increase their production of organic cashew and sesame and sell their commodities to export markets” (“One million new cashew trees”). This support does not limit itself to just money, as Farm Africa’s cashew program aims to aid farmers from start to finish. After helping them plant the cashew seedlings, Farm Africa provides assistance in cashew storage, links to farmers’ markets, and issues fair trade certifications.
Fair trade certifications and working in conjunction with European countries has opened up global access for farmers that would otherwise be limited in where they could sell their crop. Giving new life to an industry that is so important to Kenya’s economy has gone a long way. Farm Africa reports that agriculture makes up 27% of Kenya’s GDP, and “about 80% of the population relies on agriculture, directly or indirectly, for employment or livelihood” (“One million cashew trees”). By focusing on basic elements of traditional farming, Farm Africa has helped stimulate the agricultural sector of Kenya’s economy, improving the lives of many along with it. Farm Africa has been a key link between private businesses, European countries, and African farmers, which has continued to improve farming practices. Keeping farmers connected with the latest farming practices and techniques has been a strong point for Farm Africa, as they have found success in their transparency with local communities. Kenyan communities have struggled with access to important scientific information. A 2009 study found that agricultural and environmental policy creation in Kenya was thought to be “more effective by focusing on noncontroversial livelihood issues before addressing more difficult wildlife issues and using strategic and periodic engagement with most partners instead of continual engagement” (Reid, 1).
By condensing its work and resources to just four countries in East Africa, Farm Africa has been able to give a more complete effort in solving local issues. Without having to worry about the limitations of a periodic engagement schedule, farmers receive more complete help that begins with education and continues all the way to the moment crops are sold. Additionally, this study concluded that it is effective to “reduce costs by providing new scientific information only when deemed essential” (Reid, 1). Again, Farm Africa proves to be above average in their commitment to reaching out to the private businesses and other countries of the global community to provide the most up-to-date and complete education and processes for farmers. By relying on the global community for assistance, Farm Africa has greatly improved traditional farming methods in Kenya, but their work has continued to expand outside the realm of crop farming.
Embracing Non-crop Farming
One way in which Farm Africa has supported the expansion of farming outside of just crops is their fish farming training. Starting in 2016, Farm Africa offered free online training courses that allowed farmers to take tests and eventually receive a certification of their understanding of fish farming processes. Unfortunately, this training program has come with more problems than the Aldi-backed demonstration plots. An online training course is less tangible than actual demonstration fields, and it does require computer access and literacy to sign up, take the tests, and eventually print the certification. This certification simply serves to prove an understanding of the techniques and completion of every test with a passing grade. The class “provides training and detailed guidance on four subjects: pond construction, pond stocking, fish harvesting and transport to market” (“Farm Africa unveils online portal”). Despite some drawbacks, the training portal has already proven to have positive impacts. Farmers are able to sell more fish, and people are able to buy those fish with the peace of mind that they came from a safe pond. The program has already trained over 400 farmers, one of whom tells Farm Africa after completing the program, he is “certain I will be in for a bountiful harvest and improved sales” (“Farm Africa unveils online portal”). While fish farming has taken great strides, other areas of animal care have fallen short.
James Mwololo, Farm Africa’s Head of Agriculture, discussed how he believes they are missing the mark in livestock farming. He acknowledges that livestock is important as a source of food and an important resource for any growing economy. Having ample livestock not only increases the amount of food that can be produced, but also the nutrition in the food. Farm Africa has undertaken a project to reach out to small scale herders and farmers in Ethiopia who do not have as much access to government assistance in farming. They have introduced a model that is “popular and being widely used across the region” that focuses on providing “livestock keepers with training, setting up community-based buck stations and supporting the establishment of local community breeding associations” (Mwololo). While Farm Africa has continued to lead the way in providing training and support to those who have least access to it, unlike most of their projects, their livestock initiative has yet to yield widespread results. Due to low quality or even nonexistent livestock services in parts of East Africa, a concerning 25% of livestock still die of preventable disease each year (Mwololo). To combat this problem, Farm Africa will have to continue to push more money and resources towards farmers across East Africa, as a great deal of these livestock can be saved by increased education and better access to livestock care. Focusing on small-scale farmers is a crucial step to a more connected and advanced economy, and it is not being overlooked by Farm Africa. Their focus on non-crop farming like fish and livestock has been an important step in expanding their work, but they still have a long way to go to continue to increase accessibility for all farmers in East Africa.
The Green Farming Boom
While farming issues have occupied a lot of Farm Africa’s resources, they have placed just as much attention on the issue of the changing environment. As Africa’s climate poses serious dangers to future farming, farmers have needed to adjust their practices and change towards green farming techniques. This green farming boom has only just begun, and will become more of a pressing issue as time goes on. Farm Africa’s CEO, Nicolas Mounard, details Farm Africa’s struggle to balance agriculture prosperity and environmental protection. One idea Farm Africa has implemented is using farming techniques that specifically require forest, in order to encourage protection of the forests. It is hard to sell this idea to farmers, as “the income that forest-based enterprises tends to be small compared to what could be earned by turning the forest into cropland” (Mounard). It is difficult to convince farmers to commit to techniques that they know would not bring them the greatest possible profit, especially when they rely so heavily on farming for their wellbeing. Farm Africa has continued to stress the importance of looking towards future profits rather than what would be best right now. Not only does forest-based farming discourage deforestation, but it also helps prevent forest decay, which in turn helps contribute to cleaner air. Farm Africa has made efforts to design a system that rewards communities for reducing carbon emissions and deforestation, but they are unable to beat the financial incentive to cut down the forests. Unable to go around governments and big business, Farm Africa has repositioned to lobby directly to them. Mounard calls upon “companies and governments, those most responsible for high carbon emissions, to step up to make the effort to ensure communities receive the reward they expect and deserve for protecting forests and reducing emissions” (Mounard). Unfortunately, like many other environmental organizations, Farm Africa has had limited success in broad scale environmental change.
While lasting and significant change is still necessary, Farm Africa is correct in their assessment that the environment will continue to grow as a crucial issue for African farmers. According to one assessment, change in temperatures will drastically hurt the yields of some of the most important crops in East Africa. Grains would be the most vulnerable, risking a decline in upwards of 72% of crops, followed by maize and rice at 45% and tea and coffee at 40% (Adhikari). As Farm Africa is working to increase the inputs and outputs of farming, they are at risk of being pushed back to old production levels by the soil quality. This risk emphasizes the importance of their practices in other crops, such as their cashews. It also adds to the importance of farming that does not rely on soil conditions, such as the fish and livestock farming. While this issue continues to worsen, farmers will continue to seek ways to keep the soil healthy. While it is believed that “small-scale irrigation systems and water harvesting structures seem promising, affordability of such measures remains a key issue” (Adhikari). Farm Africa has engaged in some small-scale projects to bring irrigation systems to farmers in need, but longer term solutions will require new technology and greater commitment. Farm Africa continues to work hard to support environmental protection, but they still have a need for longer term solutions that would be economically feasible for East African farmers.
Striving for Sustainability
Even before there were large-scale concerns about climate effects on crop yields, sustainable farming practices that protected the soil were still highly sought after. An old study on best soil sustainability strategies found that replenishment of specific nutrients that could be lacking in the soil was an important factor to watch. One specific technique that was named by this study was “agroforestry”, but the study determined that “dynamic models of farm nutrient budgets that include such interactions are needed to further assess the sustainability of farming systems” (Shepherd, 87).
After years of data collection and advancements, it is interesting that this concept of agroforestry still influences the work of Farm Africa. In advocating for forest-friendly farming in Ethiopia, Mounard discusses the idea of “agroecology” which he defines as a means “to describe the interactions between agriculture and the environment” (Mounard). He details how Farm Africa focuses on ways to satisfy a dwindling resource base and the needs of the communities.
East African farmers have turned to conservation farming to keep their soil and crops healthy in what can be a harsh environment. A study of East African farms studied the different methodology and benefits to conservation farming methods. Specifically, it describes evidence pointing to “increased yields and improved water productivity in semi-arid and dry sub-humid locations” in the regions where Farm Africa operates (Kaumbutho). These improvements stemmed from the use of non-inversion tillage methods which allows farmers to use manure and other substitutes for water to enrich the soil. These methods have allowed for farmers to ensure the sustainability of the soil while saving limited resources like water. When done properly, conservation farming is a sustainable and cost-effective process. Unfortunately, this practice has stalled in becoming common among farmers. In a study of Ethiopian farms, the presence of improved conservation practices was noted. However, “adoption rates, especially of soil conservation and water harvesting technologies, are still low” (Wossen). Despite the best efforts of Farm Africa, these vital soil conservation practices have still not fully reached all parts of East Africa. Like access to livestock care, Farm Africa has been able to provide education for these farmers, but has not been able to ensure that resources and procedures reach all farmers.
Farm Africa understands and emphasizes the twofold benefit to better farming techniques: farmers yield more returns and sell them more efficiently and the community has increased access to locally and safely grown food. Their mission of spurring political, social and economic advancements through farming has lead to a variety of great programs that have benefited East Africans. The domino effect starts with helping farmers, who in turn create a greater economic output, provide more for dependent communities, and help combat a changing climate. Their leadership has produced programs that have informed farmers and connected them with resources and markets they previously did not have access to. Farm Africa has committed themselves to real solutions that are continuously supported by research. They face a steep uphill climb, as the environment is working against them and poses a real threat to the East African highlands. Farm Africa still has need for new technologies to help combat these threats, and they need to push to increase access to their resources for smaller, isolated farmers. Farm Africa has made life better for farmers in East Africa, and they will continue to be a leader in spurring advancement through farming.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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