Low-tech, co-operative approaches support smallholder farmers

A simple plastic sheet may not look like much, but it can change lives and communities

Over 70 per cent of hungry people in the world today are smallholder farmers. Those producing food are, ironically, the most likely to go without.

This summer I visited Kenya with Canadian Foodgrains Bank to explore what can be done to address hunger and support the smallholder farmers (farmers with less than 10 acres of land) who make up the vast majority of food producers in Kenya.

If we are to achieve a world without hunger, solutions will need to meet the challenges faced by these farmers. While innovations in agricultural science and technology are undoubtedly important — we had a chance to visit world-class agricultural research facilities in Kenya — I was frequently amazed by the power of simple solutions, using basic technology and community co-operation, that helped people produce more food.

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Lillian Wambui is a 50-year-old farmer who we met near Naivasha, a two-hour drive northwest of Nairobi. For the past 23 years she had grown maize and beans on her four-acre farm. But harvests were becoming irregular due to changing rains. Her maize was also affected by maize lethal necrosis disease, which led to regular crop failures. As a result, by 2009 Lillian’s farm was unable to sustain her family and she began receiving food aid.

Change for Lillian came in the form of a sheet of plastic and a local farmer group. The plastic was used to line a pond that she dug to collect and store rainwater for irrigation. She uses a manual pump to pull water from the pond to use on her fields. Fruit trees and vegetables could now thrive where they had not before. Together with other local farmers she was also trained to grow new crops such as sweet potatoes, pigeon peas, and cassava and establish fruit tree nurseries.

When you visit Lillian’s farm now, it is hard to imagine the years when her crops failed. The farm is lush and green, with passion fruit, bananas, and papaya growing abundantly. Young kale plants surround Lillian’s irrigation pond and a field of pigeon peas, a highly profitable crop, was nearly ready for harvest. Lillian now earns roughly $30 per week selling produce at the local market and her family has a nutritious diet. The farm also supports the school fees for her six children and there is enough money to make further upgrades to the farm. All this because of a sheet of plastic.

Rose Maely Mululu and Sarah Mbaetha, members of the Watema Fruit Growers, water papaya and mango seedlings.

Rose Maely Mululu and Sarah Mbaetha, members of the Watema Fruit Growers, water papaya and mango seedlings.
photo: Emily Cain/Canadian Foodgrains Bank

Storage bags

Just down the road, a different sheet of plastic was solving another major challenge: how to ensure that maize does not spoil after harvest. In Kenya, weevils often get into maize while it is stored, leaving it inedible. As a result, smallholder farmers often lose the maize they were saving for their family’s consumption. Many farmers have to sell their maize immediately after harvest. This creates a glut on the market and lowers prices. Waiting even a few months can nearly double the price that farmers receive for their maize.

AgResults has mobilized the private sector to solve this challenge by providing a prize to the companies that can sell the most maize storage bags to smallholder farmers. These heavy-duty plastic bags are air tight, prevent pest infestations, are affordable and easy to use. For the equivalent of $2.50, farmers can buy a bag that will last for three years and store 90 kg of maize, an affordable storage solution even for farmers with very limited resources.

Maize that has been stored in an AgResults-promoted storage bag shows no sign of weevil infestation.

Maize that has been stored in an AgResults-promoted storage bag shows no sign of weevil infestation.
photo: Andrew Richardson

One of the farmers who had bought a bag was Lucia Waringa Kamau. Lucia fled Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008 and now rents half an acre of land near Nakuru. This year she purchased a bag and was amazed at the results. While her neighbour’s maize turned into flour-like dust from weevil infestation within a few months, Lucia proudly showed us her maize that had been perfectly preserved for almost a year. For Lucia, this has meant being able to feed her family. It also means that any maize she decides to sell will now fetch a much higher price. For someone with only half an acre of land, the ability to store what she harvested makes a big difference.

Working together

High on a hillside in a semi-arid region southeast of Nairobi, the Watema Fruit Growers has brought together 52 farmers to improve community resilience and farm livelihoods. As its name suggests, it began with fruit, organizing a mango nursery to grow and sell mangos.

Since there is little rainfall in the area, the group has since worked on creating furrows and ridges to capture rainwater. As one group member said, “before we were not getting food because of land preparation. The water was just flowing away.”

They have also developed a shared field school where they are learning together about new crops to diversify production and more recently began working together on a plan to raise and market chickens. The solutions – new crops, fruit trees and basic water preservation – were simple, but have made a marked difference in the community.

Creating change

These solutions have had a profound impact on farmers and the communities in which they live: decreasing hunger, increasing income, sending kids to school, building a spirit of co-operation, and giving people a sense of pride.

Importantly, all these solutions are easily accessible to smallholder farmers. They are cost effective and create long-term change. These low-tech solutions are not reliant on ongoing support or specialized technical knowledge, allowing them to continue beyond the lifespan of funded projects.

Canada can play a key role in this story. Historically, our government has been a strong supporter of agricultural development around the world. However, the Canadian government’s support for agriculture has declined significantly since 2011. Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s Good Soil campaign is encouraging the Canadian government to reinvest in agriculture to achieve sustainable solutions that end hunger and improve livelihoods for farmers.

To find out more, visit ‘Good Soil’ on the Canadian Foodgrains Bank website.

Stefan Epp-Koop is a Winnipeg historian, author, chair of the Manitoba Mennonite Central Committee and acting executive director of Food Matters Manitoba.

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