The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that over 795 million people in the world are affected by severe hunger and poverty. The majority of these people live off the land, many as smallholder farmers.
Their farms often have unproductive soils and are dependent on increasingly erratic rainfall patterns. When crops do grow, they are affected by diseases, pests, and drought. Too often, farmers lack access to critical agricultural inputs like fertilizers that can enhance crop yields. Furthermore, widespread illiteracy limits their ability to access the right information at the right time – including modern best practices and innovations in agricultural science.
However, data shows that with the right knowledge and resources, smallholder farmers can move out of poverty and become dynamic players in agriculture. They have the potential to not only feed the world, but become the game changers of 21st century agriculture.
I can relate to the issues smallholder farmers face. I grew up in a farming community on the Kenyan Coast, and saw firsthand the problems associated with smallholder farming. Due to outdated farming practices and a lack of resources, my community endured repeated cycles of poverty, an experience that inspired me to study agriculture.
After I worked in Israel with the Agriculture Research Organization and saw the power of state-of-the-art farming methods, I knew I wanted to share them with my community. In 2014 I founded Oyeska Greens, a start-up dedicated to empowering smallholder farmers with the knowledge they need to farm successfully.
Each season, before we start planting, we hold focused training sessions facilitated by an extension officer from Syngenta, where farmers learn the specifics of the crops they will be growing. At the same time, they learn how to manage finances, keep records, and treat farming like a business. During training, farmers plan out what they will grow for the year, how much of each crop will be planted when, and their rotation pattern. The farmers become inspired by visualizing these practices before they happen, and gain the excitement and motivation they need to succeed.
In addition to the initial training we provide extension services throughout the farming season. For example, every once in a while, crops are affected by insect pests and diseases. When we find that a particular farmer’s knowledge of a pest is limited, we provide education on the topic. We also offer larger training sessions to educate farmers about common pests and how to scout and control them using integrated pest management.
To date, we have worked with more than 40 farmers. Our experiences on the ground show that helping smallholder farmers out of poverty is not an insurmountable challenge. It simply takes addressing the challenges they face and empowering them with the knowledge and skills they need.
With Support Comes Success
Silas Musyoki is one of our most successful farmers. He has been a vegetable farmer for many years, but like many others, he was not getting the best returns from his farm because he had limited knowledge of best practices for the vegetables he was growing.
After joining Oyeska Greens, Silas attended focused training sessions and learned about the specifics of growing tomatoes. He also learned how to treat farming like a business and the importance of creating a long term plan. Throughout the farming season, he received additional support through various extension services. By the end of the season Silas had a bumper crop, having produced over 2000 kg of tomatoes. He was able to build a beautiful home for his family and was featured in our National newspaper, Standard. Asked by the company to share words of wisdom with other smallholder farmers, Silas said “Farming is cool! Hard work pays. With the right knowledge, you can succeed.”
Another success story is that of Kennedy Mathuku, the CEO of Oyeska Greens. Before joining Oyeska Greens, Kennedy had tried farming but failed. Like many youth, he had also tried finding employment in the cities, but the quality of life was poor. Through Oyeska Greens, he has learned how to successfully grow vegetables.
Kennedy Mathuku, CEO of Oyeska Greens
These two remarkable success stories serve as a clear demonstration of what is possible when farmers are given the knowledge and tools they need. If they were better equipped, the 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide could become a significant force in helping to strengthen global food security and feed the world. However, in order for this to happen, on-the-ground success stories must be shared by the ordinary people living in these communities.
The visible success of farmers such as Silas and Kennedy can inspire young people to reconsider farming as a path out of poverty. Not only have these men found success in agriculture, they have become role models for other young people in their communities. Now, young people are inquiring every day how they too can become successful farmers.
Oyeska Greens will keep working with smallholder farmers on the Kenyan Coast. We won’t rest until the entire Kenyan Coast becomes an agricultural hub where greenhouse/open farming, technology, entrepreneurship, smart marketing, and climate-smart, smallholder-driven farming intersect to produce lasting change. This is the impact we are working to create.
Esther Ngumbi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn University in Alabama. She serves as a 2015 Clinton Global Initiative University mentor for agriculture and is a 2015 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.
[Photos courtesy of Esther Ngumbi]