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Producer To Plate: Farm to Fork

written by Wanjiku Mungai 2nd February 2017

Yummy visits Dagoretti to explore a slice of Eden right in the heart of Nairobi, and learns more about Farm Africa’s work empowering smallholder farmers.

It is a hot January day in Dagoretti but despite the heat, James Philip Njuguna, a member of the Kirigo Itura Self Help Group farm, is hard at work loosening soil around crops with a fork hoe. Spread out across their one eighth of an acre plot of land, the fruits of the group’s labour are clearly visible. Rows of leafy spinach sit next to capsicum vines from which large shiny green bell peppers dangle invitingly as they await to be harvested. Next to these are empty tomato vines.

“We harvested tomatoes at the end of last year, and they turned out very well,” Njuguna says in Kiswahili, his face lighting up with pride. On the opposite end of the field, grow a series of vertical sukuma wiki gardens, rows of cylindrical sack farms made up of piles of rocks, soil and manure and irrigated using a drip system. The bounty that lays before us stands in stark contrast to the field next door, in which sickly passion vines have barely succeeded in climbing their way around the wires that stretch from one fence to the other. These vines are a reminder of James’ first attempt at farming a few years back, when he lacked technical know how on farming and had not yet partnered up with the organisation Farm Africa.

Farm Africa has, since 1985, been working with groups of smallholder farmers to improve their yields and the economic benefits they gain from farming. “We train the groups on how to run the farms, to practice organic farming and to look for markets,” says Solomon Onyata, head of Marketing and Communications in Kenya. Also through the organisation’s trainings, farmers learn business planning, financial management and bookkeeping and are able to build networks that empower them to bargain collectively for better prices.

“We call it a farm to fork approach,” explains Country Director Tom Cadogan, referring to Farm Africa’s holistic approach to every part of the value chain, which allows them to step in at points that often inhibit farmers. This might mean supporting mango farmers in Kitui to start their own juice processing plant, or supporting fish feed retailers in order to jumpstart the entire aquaculture market of an area.

In Dagoretti, the urban agriculture project is a collaboration with AMREF Italy, and Farm Africa agronomist Gabriel Kitetu manages its implementation on the ground. “We target 200 farmers, through community groups and schools, probably the Parent Teacher Association and the agriculture clubs in schools. Through the project, farmers practice animal husbandry and vegetable production through various technologies: greenhouses, drip irrigation, open fields and vertical gardens. “We also build capacity amongst the farmers through training and provide inputs,” explains Gabriel as he is walking me through the farms. He stops at a demonstration garden and stoops down to scoop some of the soil in his hand, before letting it fall back onto the ground.

Gabriel, who has been working in the field for 13 years, spends about half of his time with the farmers, listening to their challenges and designing programs that match their most pressing needs. This year, for example, farmers have been concerned about rain shortages. As a result, he has been encouraging them to utilize farming and irrigation methods that can help maximise water even when supplies are low. One way he uses to train them is through these demonstration gardens: a raised patch of soil measuring less than a square metre is mixed with compost; spinach is planted side by side with sukuma wiki and African nightshade, and interspersed with stalks of onion and chili. “They repel pests,” says Gabriel as he plucks out a bright red chili pod to show it to me.

As for the future? Farm Africa strives for sustainability for all of their projects, which is why a market orientation is so important. Onyata elaborates: “All our projects are time-bound. When the project is over we want the groups to sustain the business. If the group is in the position to step out alone we leave them to sustain themselves and pick up a new group and do the same process again. The group we have trained can train another group on our behalf.” For the future, they intend to strengthen this market orientation, and to embed a strong focus in the programing towards sustainable business. This would mean educating the farmers on market trends and opportunities, all the while ensuring quality production of whatever it is they are growing.

“Initially, we were just supporting livelihoods, but now it’s more focused on markets and natural stock management and quality production. We want to have entrepreneur farmers who have records, who can access finance from institutions like banks.”

And finally, “we intend to reach as many farmers as we can for as long as we can.”

To learn more about Farm Africa’s work empowering smallholder farmers, visit Farm Africa’s Website.

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