Q&A WITH OUR CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE MANAGER

Smallholder farmers in our network are organised into cooperatives or producer organisations which we refer to as Centres of Excellence (CoEs). Our CoEs are a farmer-run enterprise hosted by producer organisations. They ​support farmers through ​farmer-led training, ​funding through a farmer-led credit fund, ​market ​access, and farmers accessing applicable data to help them make better farming decisions. Through this model, we continue to grow thriving smallholder communities where each smallholder can realise their vision.

Agaba Keneth is a manager at one of our Centres of Excellence (CoE) – Kayonza, Uganda. Keneth has vast experience working with farmers and young people in Uganda and together with a team of youth agents, Keneth leads the day-to-day management at Kayonza. We spoke with Keneth who shared with us his experience working with smallholder farmers in Kayonza, the highlights of his work and the ways farmers can be supported to strengthen their enterprises and why more needs to be done to encourage youth participation in agriculture.

 

Take us through a day with you as a CoE manager. 

I am a passionate farmer and enjoy learning about farming, sharing my experiences with farmers and anyone interested. I am keen to understand the impact we can make in our communities, especially in agriculture. I enjoy working with young people and I work closely with the farmers in my community every day to understand what they do,  their challenges and how best to support them. I also like working with agriculture-related organisations that support smallholder farmers. I have previously worked with farmers in different communities as well as young farmers here in Uganda.

 

How many farmers are in your network in Kayonza?

Kayonza Growers Tea Factory has around 8,000 smallholder farmers, and we have around 3,000 smallholder farmers in our network. Some of these are part of the Youth Innovation Hub. They grow bananas, avocados, vegetables and do poultry keeping, dairy farming and beekeeping. There are also farmers who have ventured into value-added products like using bananas and pineapples to make wines.

Kayonza is mainly known for tea production, but farmers have begun introducing diversification products. Has this had an impact for the farmers?

Farmers have seen increased production because they’ve been applying a lot of the learning from the training sessions we have been having. They are selling more and adding a little more money into their pockets. Working with the youth agents has also been a great way to provide market access for these products. Through peer-to-peer learning, farmers can build a network of farmers they can learn from.

I’m also glad to see many more farmers in our network keeping records to help track the progress of their businesses. Another thing that has worked for us is our zonal groups. Grouping our farmers into zones has made training more structured and effective and we are able to monitor the progress and support the farmers more efficiently. The best thing about these zonal groups is that they were all created by the farmers. They mobilised amongst themselves and formed groups that work for them, and selected a committee that is responsible for ensuring the smooth running of all the activities of all the zones.

 

What challenges do smallholder farmers experience and in your opinion, what can be done to help break down these barriers?

Training is key. Farmers need information and skills about how best to use their land, how to make their farming a business and the many opportunities that exist and they can take advantage of. There are many subsistence farmers with big chunks of land that they can use to grow commercial crops and the thing standing between them and having these enterprises is a lack of training and skills. So in my opinion, this will be a good place to start. 

We also have seen many farmers who have excess produce from their farms, but lack the markets where they can take their produce. For these farmers, we can help provide access to markets and for others like banana farmers, we can train them on the benefits of value addition. 

Because of a combination of customs, policies and laws, young Ugandans are unable to own land. And getting parents, who are the land owners, to trust them with doing any kind of farming on their land is a challenge. And so, some young people lose interest in wanting to start something in agriculture. If young people could access land, they could earn a living from the industry.

 

From your own observation, what comes to the minds of young people when they think about agriculture as a profession?  Do they see it as an area where they can make money?

In a country like Uganda, with a population of more than 48 million people, most of our food is produced by older farmers – our parents and grandparents who make sure that we have food every day. If you take a look at previous years, despite it being the backbone of our nation, agriculture hasn’t been the sector that attracts young people. But what’s exciting now is the innovations we are beginning to see in the sector. Young people are now getting interested in the modern forms of agriculture, opening up the opportunities for younger farmers to consider this as a field where they can get into and actually earn an income from.  

For example, in the last five years, young people have ventured into a few areas across the agriculture value chain, like marketing and production. While acquiring land is still a challenge for most young people, a few farmers have started projects where they lease land to young people, where they can grow avocados. There are those who run their own micro- enterprises like pig farming, keeping goats, poultry, beekeeping and fish farming in small plots of land that do not require a lot of space. We have a Youth Innovation Hub in Kayonza where about 24 young people are doing commercial farming and they are also shareholders in our tea cooperative.

 

And what in your opinion can be done so that more young people can consider opportunities in agriculture?

I have been working with people for over 10 years now and throughout the years, we’ve tried different approaches to motivate young people to venture into the industry, and while some approaches have not worked and some have, I’ve learned a lot.

While lack of finance to start is a huge barrier preventing young people from wanting to consider a career in agriculture, I think we can first start by providing a platform where young people have a sense of belonging and they feel they can contribute. It is for this reason that we formed the Youth Innovation Hub in Kayonza. When young people came together to share ideas, we saw many more young people engage and that’s how all the micro-enterprises I’ve mentioned started.

My dream is to have an Africa Youth Innovation Hub, where young people from across Africa can showcase what they are doing in their countries, their innovations and inspire other young people like them. This way, we can learn about the gaps that exist and by working with young people, identify solutions that will enable the creation of more opportunities in the industry. If supported, young people can become successful agri-preneurs, designing innovations that will power the agriculture sector now and in future.

Tell us a little about your experience working with youth agents. 

Working with youth agents has made it possible for us to reach many more farmers in a day. We are able to allocate tasks in a way that is efficient and allows us to best support our farmers. Right now we are able to monitor farmers’ activities and monitor their progress as well. Working with youth agents has made it possible to deliver on a lot of our projects in good time.

Our youth agents facilitate sales between farmers and buyers. Our goal was to ensure that the farmers in our network and the surrounding communities understand the value of our Centre of Excellence in enabling farmers to access markets, and youth agents have been our champions in driving market access and training farmers and buyers about how to navigate the platform. We are proud of the work they do every day.

 

Please share with us how farmers in Kayonza were affected by the pandemic and how they were able to cope during the difficult period.

Our farmers were not exempt from experiencing the negative effects of the pandemic. Because of the lockdown measures, everyone had to stay home, making it difficult for our farmers to sell their produce and even when they could, they sold at very low prices. Tea prices went down and farmers who depend on a single cash crop were greatly affected. 

One of the ways that we worked together with farmers to reinforce the health measures from the government and to ensure that our farmers stayed safe and protected during the pandemic, was through sensitisation, using the training materials that farmers co-designed with the Producers Direct team. 

We are grateful that things began picking up after the measures were lifted. As we speak, I am aware that there are some organisations that closed down during the pandemic and they have never reopened. And while some farmers are still paying some of the debts they incurred during that period, they are glad that things are slowly going back to normal.

 

We’ve seen how climate change is affecting the agricultural sector. How are you helping farmers in your network deal with these negative effects? 

Climate change is a major challenge for farmers and they are noticing the negative effects too. One of the ways we are working with farmers is through reforestation. Farmers are planting trees and are learning about how to conserve natural forests. The introduction of diversification products has also greatly contributed to address food security.

 

Finally, what have been your highest and lowest moments working with smallholder farmers in Kayonza? 

The pandemic was the lowest moment for me because everything was closed, farmers couldn’t sell their produce like they normally would and things were difficult for them. 

Another low moment for me, which we are working on, is to increase the participation of female farmers. While we have female farmers in our network, their number is low when compared to that of men, and so one of my goals is to work closely with more female farmers to increase their participation and interest in agriculture. 

Our youth agents love working with farmers. It is always great to see farmers learning from the trainings. The peer-to-peer training in the farmer demonstration sites has greatly contributed to farmers learning and putting into practice what they learn in their farms.

One of my highlights is whenever I see farmers working together during meetings and training on the demonstration sites. It always gives me joy because I know that they are not only learning directly, but that they are implementing what they are learning on their farms and in their agriculture enterprises.

Q&A WITH OUR CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE MANAGER

At the core of Producers Direct’s model is its Centre of Excellence network, a farmer-run enterprise hosted by a smallholder producer organisation. Our goal is for each CoE to serve as a ‘one stop shop’, providing ​support to farmers through ​farmer-led training, ​funding through a farmer-led credit fund, ​market ​access ​and farmers accessing applicable data to help them make better farming decisions. The CoE model enables farmers and producer organisations to break down the barriers that farmers face, upskilling them to boost their resilience, productivity and livelihoods.

Carolyne Mutai is a manager at one of our Centres of Excellence (CoE) – Sireet OEP, located in Nandi Hills, Kenya. In 2015, she started working as a youth coordinator and was part of the team that established the Sireet CoE, which was started to create additional sources of income for smallholder farmers. Carolyne runs the day-to-day management at the CoE, working closely with youth agents to support farmers to run their agriculture enterprises.

Sireet CoE is largely known as a tea-processing cooperative, and while the cooperative has over the years produced high-quality tea, smallholder farmers in Sireet have ventured into agricultural diversification. By introducing other products such as bananas, avocados and honey they have been able to increase their incomes and mitigate some of the risks that relying on one crop can create. 

Everyday, smallholder farmers face numerous challenges and addressing these challenges is difficult. In a recent interview with Carolyne, she talks to us about  the innovative approaches and strategies that farmers have adopted over the years and even during the pandemic and shares how she thinks farmers across the agriculture value chain can be supported to grow their incomes.

What does your typical day as a COE manager look like?

This depends on the projects I have. For example, when I come in the morning, I go through my schedule for the day. On some days, farmers come to my office in the morning with different requests, like currently, many of the bee farmers want to find out how they can get beekeeping equipment or to find out about selling their honey, so I attend to these farmers first and then go to the farms to meet with farmers to keep up to date on what is going on and help with any challenges they are experiencing. I always have to be in touch with the farmers and so visiting their farms is something I do regularly. Then the rest of my day involves me working on any other tasks either in the office or outside the office.

 

How many farmers are there in your network in Sireet OEP?

We have slightly above 6000 shareholders, but when we count the total number of farmers who have access to the services at Sireet, the number goes up to about 14,000. These services that non-shareholders access are like training, or when they get a market for their products. There was a farmer who recently came in to find out whether he could attend a beekeeping training that was led by one of our promoter farmers and also about where he could sell his 60 litres of honey. Like I mentioned, many farmers are interested in beekeeping

 

 

How have smallholder farmers in Sireet coped with the negative impacts of the pandemic?

The biggest challenge for many farmers was finding a market for their produce. Because of the lockdown restrictions and the curfew, many markets, even within our farmers’ locality, were closed, meaning a lot of their produce would just go to waste because they did not have anywhere to sell. Even the farmers who would usually wait for buyers to come to buy produce from them in the farms also experienced this challenge because movement was restricted. Again, because many farmers are above 40 years old, they had to stay at home to protect themselves from getting infected. After months of making losses, some farmers began trying other profitable ventures like poultry farming and as more farmers learned about how to manage the risks of Covid-19, they found ways to still be productive, despite the pandemic. Thanks to the lifting of the lockdown restrictions and the curfew, and vaccine uptake, more farmers felt safe to go back to work. 

 

What would you say are some of the things that make Sireet a cooperative that’s farmer centered?

The cooperative was founded and is owned purely by farmers, meaning the decisions made at every level are for the benefit and growth of the farmers. Because of this, farmers feel a sense of ownership and a responsibility. The structure of the cooperative also is such that farmers get to interact with the leadership team and doing this makes them feel part of the cooperative and this interaction assures them that their concerns are heard and addressed. 

Our farmers also value trust, and so whenever we have a project, we ensure to engage them throughout the project and address any challenges and support them all the way so that they can trust us with their enterprises. We ensure to give them information at every stage of the project.

From working with farmers all these years, what would you say has been the impact of training on their enterprises?

The biggest impact has been them implementing what they’ve learned in the training sessions in their own farms because they find the lessons helpful. And because they learn from their fellow farmers, they always have their peers to seek clarity from and they can always learn more from them because they are within reach.

We’ve selected promoter farmers based on the enterprises they specialise in and also according to their regions (zones). In that way, farmers know which promoter farmer to go to for training, advice and any other support they may need from promoter farmers. We have promoter farmers in all our zones and the great thing about our promoter farmers is that they are always willing to share their knowledge and expertise. 

There’s a woman who began growing vegetables in her kitchen garden, and when we offered banana training, she was part of the training. After the training, she started growing bananas. She now runs her own banana business, and is now one of our promoter farmers, training other farmers on banana farming. She also brought together a group of women who formed a chama (an informal investment group) where they give monthly contributions to support their goal of becoming bee farmers. They recently came to me asking about how we could supply them with beehives. 

 

When interacting with farmers, what are the challenges that they always highlight that they’d want addressed?

For bee farmers, harvesting honey is one of the areas they need training in. There are farmers who have up to 200 bee hives, all of them colonised, but not having the right harvesting gear or the right skills to ensure that they do not contaminate the honey during harvesting prevents them from making maximum profits from their beekeeping businesses.

For avocado farmers, the only challenge would be to ensure that they get the right seedlings for a certified nursery, because management of avocado farms, with the right seedlings, is not a challenge. For banana farmers, the challenge is finding the right variety of bananas to grow, from the many different varieties that are in the market.So they need training in order to identify the right variety that will do well in their area.

The other challenge for farmers is lack of finance to grow their enterprises and lack of markets for their produce. Access to finance creates opportunities for farmers to explore a wide range of farming options and when they have a market to sell their produce, then their enterprises will thrive. 

 

Other than growing avocados, bananas and beekeeping, what other ventures are farmers diversifying into?

Some of our farmers are dairy farmers, they keep poultry and some have fish ponds and kitchen gardens. 

 

What has been the impact of working with youth agents?

I’ve worked with three of the five youth agents for close to five years. The other two joined us last year. The youth agents are responsible for the different zones within Sireet, and work closely with farmers to support their day-to-day activities. Working with them has made my work more manageable. 

 

What about young people? What agriculture related activities are they doing? 

Some have ventured into beekeeping because it is a shorter season, high-value farm enterprise when compared to crop production. In Sireet, we are creating opportunities for them through value addition and also by being part of the value chain, including areas like transportation. Training and enabling the integration of technology to unlock opportunities is also one other way we are working to ensure that young people can earn a living in agriculture.

 

How can young people be supported to get into agriculture?

By engaging them in youth forums, where as groups, they will share their ideas and tell us what areas they want to venture into when it comes to agriculture. I also think, by engaging with other young people from different counties, they’ll have an opportunity to see what agricultural activities young people are doing and learn from their peers and exchange ideas. 

 

How are the farmers in Sireet dealing with the negative impacts of climate change they are seeing on their farms?

Climate change has been one of the things that we get to talk about here in Sireet. Last year for example, the weather was unpredictable and in previous years, farmers have noticed the changing weather patterns that continue to affect their yield. We’ve had training sessions where farmers are taught about the importance of growing trees to preserve biodiversity. We have a tree nursery here in Sireet, where we distribute seedlings to farmers. We also have training sessions where farmers learn about how to take care of wetlands, preserve the rivers and the forests. In one of our training sessions last year, farmers with kitchen gardens learned a simple farming technology- multi-storey gardening, where through irrigation, they are able to maximise their crop production all year round.

Two years ago, we also had a project where farmers learned how to utilise weather forecasting to help them make plan for the many day-to-day decisions like crop irrigation, what’s the best time to add fetiliser and when to expect rain… And the decisions they made helped them to predict weather patterns and make decisions to improve the production of a successful crop.  

 

Finally, what have been your lowest and highest moments of working with smallholder farmers?

My lowest moments had to be during the pandemic when we had to stop the training sessions and visits to farms, so we couldn’t respond to the challenges farmers were experiencing at the time. It was also a low moment because farmers made huge losses 

One of my highest moments has been seeing farmers put into practice what they’ve learned during training sessions. When a farmer calls to tell me that they are happy they came to the training because they’ve implemented what they learned, and it has improved their yield, that makes me happy. 

 

Working with Farmers to Increase their Incomes Through Beekeeping

“ I attended beekeeping training at the Sireet Centre of Excellence (COE) office and after that training, another team of farmers came to teach us more about beekeeping. From these training sessions, I learned more about beekeeping and how to get a market for honey and other farm products.”

At Producers Direct, we understand that agriculture is a key contributor to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and we work with them to support ownership of key crop value chains and on-farm diversification into multiple crops as a key way to increase incomes. By growing multiple additional crops and products, in addition to the main cash crop, there’s potential for farmers to earn more and grow their incomes.

We’ve seen first-hand the wealth of experience, knowledge and expertise which exists in underserved rural farming communities. Our model and approach focuses on creating opportunities for smallholders to share, build upon and strengthen this knowledge and expertise. Using our farmer-led COEs, smallholder farmers  are learning how to implement new and innovative farming techniques  through peer to peer training to transform their farms into sustainable businesses. 

One of the ways our farmers are diversifying is through beekeeping. This is a fairly manageable venture that farmers can add around their farm households, it is flexible and does not require as much tendering as keeping livestock and other crops. Additionally, beekeeping fits well into smallholder farming systems because it does not take up a lot of space, does not rely on other factors like soil fertility or compete with other resources needed by crops and livestock, making it a suitable venture even for young people. 

With this in mind, Producers Direct has introduced modern beekeeping through training and recruitment of bee farmers across East Africa  and Peru, to enable them to set up bee hives, produce and sell honey. Using our four-part, farmer-led support services, farmers are given training on beekeeping, and training on the importance of documenting farm records and how they can make use of the data to make better beekeeping decisions. Farmers then receive funding in form of beehives and equipment needed to launch their honey enterprises. Bee farmers then work with our network of youth coordinators who create links to local markets where farmers can sell their honey. 

 

Through the four main components of our model, we support farmers to start their businesses, earn additional incomes and share their expertise with other farmers. “In one of the training sessions, we got loans in the form of bee hives to help us set up our beekeeping businesses. This was helpful because we are now able to put our training to practical use.“ Our bee farmers in Uganda and Tanzania have, to date, received 986 Langstroth bee hives and 60 complete kits of protective honey harvesting gear. 

“In one of the training sessions, we got loans in the form of bee hives to help us set up our beekeeping  businesses. This was helpful because we are now able to put our training to practical use.”

 

Alongside our work with farmers, we are creating a farmer-owned brand of honey. By purchasing Producers Direct honey, hundreds more smallholder farms will become sustainable businesses. This honey is currently on sale in Kenya with plans to scale out across our network. 

Beekeeping has the potential to supplement or enhance the incomes of our smallholder farmers  across East Africa and Peru, adding an additional $29 a month (over 50% increase for farmers earning $1.35 a day), according to our research. Our goal is to continue to work together with farmers to sustain this growth, support their beekeeping enterprises by providing them with finance and linking them with markets where they can sell their honey and in future, other bee hive products.