Women Deliver recently came out with their annual “Women Deliver 50” list of inspiring ideas and solutions put forward by women and girls. The women and groups celebrated in the list cover a broad range of topics and programs, from midwives in Ethiopia to advocating for women’s voices in Libya.
One that sparked my interest was “Africans feeding Africa” by Backpack Farm, which is a social enterprise that hosts trainings for small-scale farmers in East Africa and sells them green agriculture technologies and supplies– all in a backpack.
I caught the founder, Rachel Zedeck, in the middle of the busy planting season in Kenya, but she managed to spare some time to tell me about their program and some of the challenges in pursuing the social enterprise model.
Tanya Cothran: Where does your funding come from? What drew you to the commercial model as opposed to the donor-funded aid model?
Rachel Zedek: I used my life savings to build the company, which is a registered LTD (limited company) in Kenya. In retrospect I think I was naïve. A hybrid NGO/for-profit model would have been best in the early days to help strengthen our operations with access to more grant funding. Now, more commercial capital is moving into the market but still not as much as you would think. Finance continues to be our biggest challenge to scaling our operations. Just five years ago, no one believed in for-profit for smallholder farmers. Now they have been included in the Davos and G20 agenda so I am hopeful this will help attract new agriculture investors into Kenya and the wider East Africa Community.
TC: Your focus is assisting smallholder farmers. What does this term mean and how about many smallholder farmers are there in Kenya?
RZ: We differentiate between a smallholder who has 2-5 acres of land and earns their primary income from farming versus a “last mile” or subsistence farmer who typically has less than ½ acre of land and lives in a semi-arid region with little or no access to water. It is infeasible for the majority of subsistence farmers to move above the poverty line through horticulture farming. What’s more exciting is that 80% of the region’s food is produced by women. While we aren’t gender biased, we do work with a lot of women.
There are approximately 27 million smallholder farmers in Kenya (76% of the population work in rural agriculture). I and others estimate that approximately 21 million are truly smallholder with the remaining 6 million being subsistence farmers who are also pastoralist, such as the Maasai, Turkana, Borana, ethnic Somalis, Pokot, and other tribes. They love cattle and goats and have limited desire to farm.
TC: How much do the backpacks cost? How do they reach your customers?
RZ: Backpack materials cost anywhere from $10 (for refill of products) to more than $2,000 USD for a full acre of inputs. This is 1/7 the cost of other commercial inputs. More than 75% of that cost is for the drip irrigation and water tank. This may seem like a large investment but on its own, irrigation can double or triple crop yields. If I had my choice, I would want every smallholder farmer to have access to a drip irrigation kit. The refill packs for each new planting season include seeds and cutting edge biological & botanical inputs enhancing soil nutrition (fertilizers), and crop protection.
These products are distributed through a network of franchise training and distribution centers. If the customers only want to attend training then they pay 20 KES (less than $0.25 cents) but they aren’t required to buy any inputs.
TC: How are your product and trainings marketed in Africa?
RZ: We are primarily leveraging local agriculture shows and our own farmer field days. Right now, we are shopping for finance, and so not able to invest in big marketing campaigns. In the future, we plan to use more print and radio ads and our mobile tool to target specific regions with SMS campaigns.
Our website media is primarily used to attract franchise partners, investors and donor partners who want to leverage our technical program.
TC: Do you find that many people already know about some aspects of sustainable agriculture when they come to the trainings?
RZ: Yes, farmers do have a lot of local knowledge as well as bits from other NGO programs or national campaigns. The issue is not the desire to learn but a complete understanding of why they should be committed to implementing the techniques. We offer 47+ classes, covering a range of topics, with the biggest impact in water and soil fertility. In the last 10 years, we have suffered from eight years of drought or late and short rains. Better water management is critical to accomplishing regional food security.
So many NGO programs have popped up over the last 20 years. In fact, it has been a huge stumbling block for us. So many communities are indoctrinated with “free.” This is one reason we charge for our classes. When we launched free training, no one would come. We learned that free has no value.
Now we are asking farmers to invest in their own success through training or new farming technologies like drip irrigation. When you make an investment, you demonstrate the determination to see the return on investment. By giving them access to a demonstration farm, they can see the long term benefits of both the training and technologies. Farming is all about patience. At least with drip irrigation, we can show them a pretty immediate impact in their use of water (which is a cost input) and how well their seeds germinate. The longer-term impact comes from the strength of the plant as well as how much and what quality it produces at harvest.
TC: Is there any help for selling their crops, in addition to growing them?
RZ: Currently, we do not link farmers to a specific market but wholesalers are welcome to attend a farmer field day and meet farmers. In the future, farmers will be able to link to buyers through our mobile training tool, “KUZA Doctor.”
TC: If you received a large donation or investment today, how would you use it? How would you grow/expand/improve?
RZ: Ahhhh…the magic question of money. If we raised the investment we need today, I would do the following:
- Hire four new staff including a new Director of Operations
- Buy new equipment including two new cars and four computers
- Move into a new office with space for a demonstration garden in the middle of Nairobi. It’s amazing how many city dwellers are secret weekend farmers.
- Build a minimum of five new franchise farms. Build it and they will come – making it much easier for us to find partners in key agriculture regions like Meru and Nanyuki.
- Plan a marketing campaign for the upcoming planting season. If all goes well, the short rains will arrive in October and November.
Visit Backpack Farm’s website to learn more.