Entrepreneur watch: Giving farmers a backpack for success

A backpack packed with everything you need to run a successful small-scale farming operation. This is what an innovative company is offering small-scale farmers in Kenya and southern Sudan. How we made it in Africa’s Regina Ekiru caught up with Rachel Zedeck, founder and managing director of Backpack Farm.

The Backpack Farm packaged with all the essential agriculture inputs such as seed, crop protection products and irrigation equipment.

The Backpack Farm packed with all the essential agriculture inputs such as seed, crop protection products and irrigation equipment.

Tell us about the concept behind your Backpack Farm Agriculture Programme.

I was standing on a runway in southern Sudan watching women carry 90 kilogram bags of maize. I thought if women can carry bags of maize with little or no nutritional value, why can’t we package them a farming programme? Our programme packages a canvas backpack with certified seed, fusion nutrition programmes (soil fertility and crop protection), sprayers, drip irrigation lines, a water tank, a water filter, safety equipment and a training manual. The Backpack Farm gives farmers everything they need to mirror commercial rates of production on their shamba (Swahili for farm). Most importantly, farmers receive training on how best to use the backpack tools as well as build their core capacity.

Founded in 2007, we now operate in Kenya and southern Sudan. At first we started to sell in Nairobi but realised centralising our sales and distribution model would limit our reach. So last year we began to build our franchise programme. Currently we have seven training farms in Kenya and one in southern Sudan, each customised to meet the needs of every region. All our training farms are franchises. Our goal for 2011 is to have 20 sites. Next year we will expand to Tanzania and Rwanda. We believe Africa has the potential to feed not only the region but the whole world.

How would you describe the uptake of the Backpack Farm?

At first farmers are always sceptical when they hear about new technology. Each of our training farms grows four to six crops as a demonstration and immediately has a ‘wow’ factor. With our own distribution and commercial sector projects under incubation, we plan to support more than 100,000 farmers over the next 18 months. We are still facing two barriers. First is the lack of capacity in rural farming communities on basics like soil fertility, water management and new farming technologies. Second, smallholder farmers are indoctrinated to aid. They need to learn to make investments in themselves and their farms.

You mentioned that you work in southern Sudan; give us an overview of the region’s potential for agriculture?

Southern Sudan imports 98% of its food while more than 78% of its land is grade one fertile soil; better than any oil resources. Their soil is not only fertile but virgin, meaning it has never been corrupted by damaging fertilisers or pesticides. Southern Sudan could become the organic capital of the world. Unfortunately the local population are mostly pastoralists and lack capacity in farming. The only way to ensure long term stability is to ensure food security. If people cannot feed their children you cannot expect them not to fight. Our next big development country in distribution before we expand across the region will be southern Sudan.

You speak passionately about smallholder farmers. What do you think about industrial agriculture?

Industrial farming has a role to play. We can’t get rid of industrial farms but we don’t want to be like America where they have destroyed family farming. We are not the same world as the West. Smallholder farmers in East Africa are the most underutilised resource we have, with the potential to impact child malnutrition and unemployment.

What is your opinion on genetically modified (GM) foods?

When farmers don’t understand crop rotation, soil fertility and other basic farming skills, I refuse to accept that GM crops are the answer. Until we know more, the decision to invest in GM crops is wreckless. We need to not only learn from the impacts of GM crops in India but invest in more technical and policy research. Currently farmers utilise only 12% to 15% of their land’s potential. If farmers could utilise between 40% to 50% of their land’s potential we will eliminate food security issues in Africa.

What are your future plans for the Backpack Farm Agriculture Programme?

In the next five years we plan to reach one million farmers and are on track to reach that goal. We are actively searching for financing to further expand our operations. In the next four weeks we will be launching ‘KUZA DOCTOR’, an SMS based tech support tool providing smallholder farmers with specific information on ten different crops. We want to explore how farmers can be supported through mobile technologies. In mid-April we will begin to give away our farming manual for free online. With more than 40 capacity building classes, we hope to not only inspire donors, local NGOs but also our competitors to invest in smallholder farmers, the future of the global food chain.