Al Kags

On the realities of farming and the challenges of funders


I have been a farmer for about eight months, having moved to Malindi my home town at the beginning of the year. Before that I was a typical city dweller in Nairobi. I was fortunate to be living in a nice neighbourhood and had an office not far from the president’s State House. In a nutshell, I was far removed from farming. But I knew about agriculture and I could discuss it in abstract terms – either over whisky with fellow executives or in conferences in other cities around the world. When I googled about agriculture, I was more fascinated by the innovations in San Francisco and New York – learning words like “aquaponic” and “aeroponics”.

In many of these videos I was intrigued to listen to the experimenters who say things like, “I control everything from the air, the water, the soil etc.” Unfortunately, these ornate high sanitary “labs” are very very far from the reality of any farmer in Kenya – and certainly, any small holder farmer in Africa. In the past eight months, I have had the opportunity to get significantly grounded and I learnt some interesting lessons.

Farmers Learn from Farmers.

What's the Function of Calcium (Ca) in Plants? – Greenway Biotech, Inc.

I could not say this better than the above. Farmers Learn from Farmers. My farm manager told me something memorable as he was teaching me how to farm. He said, “growing food is like raising children. Every day is different.” One day everything was going well with the tomatoes and suddenly many of them had a black spot. We had no idea what that was.

I took a picture and posted it on a Facebook group for farmers and it was quickly identified by other farmers who had experienced it. I then went to the Agrovet shop in town and discussed the issue with an agronomist there, who recommended what I should use and sold me calcium inputs for the tomatoes.

I cannot fail to acknowledge that I have privilege. Most farmers do not have access to a smartphone and even the ones that do, most are not savvy enough to use Facebook. Most are not functionally literate enough to consult and understand what the Agronomist at the Agrovet had to say in 15 minutes – or indeed to read the instructions on the cover. Most of them do not have the money for transport and the Kshs. 300 it took for me to buy the calcium supplement that was needed.

Farmers need a social infrastructure system at arms length.

In the process of growing my produce at the farm, I have needed to depend on the knowledge of local soil experts, local water experts and faming gurus – all of whom I have needed to at least pay for their transport to the farm. I have needed to ask a great many questions and to have them on call to support me as and when I needed the support.

For farmers to succeed, they need to have human beings near them who speak their language, who can slow down to accommodate farmers who learn more slowly than others and who need better explanation and practicals to understand.

Why tech doesn’t quite work

Over the past decade, a lot of money has been given by well meaning funders and venture capitalists towards technology-driven tools that were meant to support farmers to improve access to farming information, provide small loans and access to inputs and increase their access to markets.

I have attended many pitches over the years – since Jay Bhalla and the iHub organised an event called Pivot25 back in 2010 (or thereabouts). All of them sounded very plausible and many were actually able to raise sizable funds. Look at this list for example

Here’s my challenge: whereas I am tech savvy (very much so, I think), I haven’t found any of the tools that are currently available that could be useful for me. I also have not met one farmer – even among urbanites who moved to different parts of Kenya, who are actively using any online app (except for Facebook and Whatsapp groups)

The main reason for this is that one of the more fundamental challenges with farming is knowledge. As many farmers have very low functional literacy (best defined in this other blogpost I did), knowledge can best be passed by another human being and it cannot be automated. We are still a long way yet (in most parts of Africa) from automation.

Media does not work either

Whereas it is true that majority of Kenyans have access at least to radio, Radio and TV don’t go nearly as far as farmers need them to go in order for them to actually be productive. Most of the shows showcase farmers who have been successful in farming using some kind of technology – green house farming, drip irrigation, etc. The clips below, I picked at random from Youtube, but I have watched very many. They all are necessarily short (<15 mins), sensationally structured to capture interest and entirely devoid of detail. Even the last one, (how to set up your own vertical garden) meant to be a how to, video is inaccessible to most.

Language as a barrier to entry

I single out language as an issue because as you will see, the technical language of farming in Kenya is English, a language that is not properly spoken by the vast majority of Kenyans. The packets on seeds, fertiliser are all in English. The videos that you see in mainstream media are in English unless you are going to specifically vernacular stations – I haven’t found a vernacular Facebook group or youtube channel. It therefore means that unless we teach our people the language, which is in itself a daunting programme, we need multilingual people to translate and pass on the information to them.

An agronomist who speaks fluent giriama, that is based in Kaloleni or Marafa (Kilifi County) or an agricultural economist who is based in Homabay that understands the language and customs of the people, would be the most useful thing to drive success in smallholder farms because they can be the conduit for better information. I really should not belabour the point about Community Based Organisations as key cogs in the success of small community enterprises, including farming – I talked about it in my previous blogpost – but I will belabour that point.

Also Read: Most useful farming Facebook Groups for me

Funders as enablers (or disablers)

I recently enjoyed talking with Carole Irungu, who was doing some listening work on behalf of some funder groups. I love that there is a strengthened move to listen and that is a significant driver of the series of blogposts I have done in the last couple of weeks.

One of the big challenges that occurred to me while speaking to her is that many donors speak to a very specific demographic of people – urban, well educated and exposed to the world and who live in mid to upmarket neighbourhoods in Kenya. I suppose it is necessary because they speak in the languages of the funders. The problem is, their lived experience is so far removed from the actual beneficiaries of the programmes that ensue from these conversations.

A person who lives in Kilimani may not understand the sheer level of under exposure a farmer in Taveta has to be able to properly structure a programme that deals with the specific need they have. Conversely, a Community Organiser does not have the access or the specific language necessary to describe the challenges of his community and the solutions that they propose – which are often so over-intellectualised as to become gibberish even for people who speak English.

The subtext of this is also this: that the vast majority of urbanites have a significantly neo-colonised mindset that has it that the old and traditional is bad and that the new and westernised is better. To that extent, they study in depth the activities and efforts of researchers in the US and wonder loudly why these measures could not be undertaken in Kenya – often disparaging Kenyan initiatives at the same time. As a recent urbanite myself, I don’t know that even I am nearly remotely cured of it, but I am becoming a lot more aware. This neo-colonised mindset has another insidious impact: that people are so heavily seduced by western ideas and resources that they can only frame their solutions in the perspective of the western funders. How could they properly articulate the realities on the ground?

I further worry that many of the organisations working on agriculture and issues of smallholder farmers are based in upmarket Nairobi – far from the farmers. Is it any wonder that we have many massively funded programmes that have underwhelming results in agriculture?

In the realm of Transparency, Participation and Accountability, the space in which I work at the Open Institute, I agree with my friend Alan Hudson of Global Integrity. He suggests that it is more promising to support efforts to understand and shift the political economy dynamics that contribute to bad governance, create space for corruption, and hinder the effective delivery of services.I go further to say that we have to go further to villages and wards to achieve a better understanding of these dynamics so that programmes are better defined.

I also worry that many of the funded programmes are so narrowly defined that they do not give room for adaptation and reorganisation so that they can respond to needs on the ground in more specific ways. Nothing ever goes as planned in the implementation of programmes and much is discovered. So if one was funded to build an app for farmers, one has to review the discoveries and reformulate the solution should that be called for.

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