Tag: farming

Moroccan farmers reap rewards of mobile technology

In 2011, hoping to escape the brouhaha of the city, I retreated for a few weeks to an isolated inn somewhere in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Each morning, I was offered a basket of delicious red apples as a gift from the locals. Delighted by their warm hospitality, I insisted on meeting them and thanking them in person. Finally I was taken to Miloud, the owner of a surrounding farm. Judging from the size of the land, I expected to walk through the doors of an ostentatious residence. However, I was shocked by the deplorable state of his mud house and miserable living conditions.

Puzzled by Miloud’s situation, I mobilised a small group of students and we conducted a field survey to decrypt how the owner of paradisiac prairies receives such minimal benefits. Our findings highlighted how the market prices were five times higher than those charged by the village farmers. Miloud, who had never left his small town, totally ignored most of the market realities which in turn made him an easy prey for unscrupulous middlemen who atrociously exploited his ignorance.

I returned to the village determined to get Miloud to increase his selling prices. The notion of change terrified the man because he feared losing his clientele under the impression that all his neighbors would continue to charge low prices. After a long and heated discussion about his situation and that of his children, Miloud finally agreed to gather the farmers of the region in his house with the goal of finding a reasonable solution to put an end to the clear exploitation they were experiencing.

The feelings of fear and inexplicable dread were shared by all the farmers,  but they were  concerned about the future of their families and hoped to offer them a better life. After paying a listening ear to their insecurities, I suggested that they put their harvest in the same basket, decide together on the selling price and never let anyone exploit them again. With the help of business students, we developed an action plan for the farmers’ co-operative Rhamna, and stayed in touch with them during their first two years of operation.

Today Rhamna co-operative has developed several added-value products and benefited from the support of the NIHD (National Initiative for Human Development). As a result, in less than two years the income of the farmers has jumped substantially by a staggering 70%.

Farmers harvest barbary figs, used in cosmetic and pharmaceutical products, on August 6  2011 in the Skhour Rhamna region near Marrakech. (Pic: AFP)
Farmers harvest barbary figs, used in cosmetic and pharmaceutical products, on August 6 2011 in the Skhour Rhamna region near Marrakech. (Pic: AFP)

Miloud’s success story inspired me to start Fair Farming, an initiative that promotes fair trade and helps smallholder farmers derive maximum benefit from their products. Since its inauguration Fair Farming has partnered with several agricultural co-operatives and impacted hundreds of farmers throughout the country. Fair Farming has been awarded by the Global Changemakers program (British Council), and was adopted by We Are Family Foundation under its Three Dot Dash initiative.

Miloud’s continuous phone calls to update me on the success of Rhamna co-operative made me realise that farmers are not as isolated as I thought. They all had access to mobile phones that could serve as a door to crucial information. During the two years I worked with Miloud’s farming co-operative I continuously updated them on weather forecasts, market prices and best farming practices from the Ministry of Agriculture using SMS or the classic phone calls. The access to basic information helped the farmers take smarter decisions and thus boost their harvest and revenue.

I quickly realised the key role access to relevant information could play in curbing poverty in Morocco and other developing countries. Using a combination of SMS and voicemail we have, over the last few months, been able to reach to hundreds of farmers as a prototype for a scaling-up project that would hopefully benefit millions of farmers in the country.

Looking back at the modest initiative I started two years ago always reminds me that small actions can and will change the world around us for the better.

Adib Ayay has a passion for agriculture and business. In 2011, at the age of 17, he founded Fair Farming, a student-run organisation that seeks to help farmers boost their revenue using mobile technology. He is one of 10 young Africans shortlisted to be a One Young World delegate at this year’s summit. At this event, the M&G’s Trevor Ncube will be chairing a session on African media and what Africans think of their journalists. To share your views, complete this short survey.

Kenya’s ambitious urban farmers

“You need to cut your nails if you want to be involved in this kind of work,” Jairus, the experienced farmer and caretaker, said disapprovingly.

This was Rosa’s first attempt at planting a tree on her newly acquired farm, located in Kenya’s Rift Valley. All the farmhands’ eyes were on her as she dug and shovelled. She was sporting a fresh new French manicure that cost her Ksh 450 ($5), but she was reluctant to trim them. What a waste of money that would be!

Later that night, at her home in Nairobi, Rosa prepared for her other job. She had an early meeting the next morning but was up late, struggling to get rid of the grit beneath her nails. She knew what she had to do: reach for a nail clipper.

Farming was going to be her life from now on and she had to start looking the part if she was serious about making a success of it. The farm had come into her possession when her father heard her talking about buying some land to practise farming. He was surprised but pleased, and since he was just about to sell off a large tract of his farm, he decided to give Rosa two acres of it.

One acre of the farm in this remote area is valued at about Ksh 350 000 ($4168). The money Rosa would have invested in buying the land will instead be used in preparing the field, and paying the farm manager and the four people he would hire during the planting season to weed and harvest the crops. For her first planting season Rosa invested in beans. Her farm produce will be sold in Rift Valley and neighbouring areas.

Rosa is part of a new group of young, urban working-class Kenyans who have decided to take up farming to boost their income. This choice of career may be unusual but it’s smart and strategic: they can save the extra income they’re making now for when they retire from their formal jobs, and then take up farming full-time when they’re older.

These urban farmers are in their late twenties to mid-thirties and were born and brought up in Nairobi. They’re professionals – doctors, project managers, NGO workers, journalists and accountants. Their only previous connection to farming is the fresh produce they bought at local markets or consumed from their parents’ or grandparents’ farms (which they hardly visited because city life was much more exciting).

Urban farmers have come to realise what Kenya’s seasoned farmers have always known: farming is a green gold mine. Agriculture­­­ or food processing in Kenya accounts for about 80% of the work force and is the backbone of the country’s economy.

Farmers tend newly planted trees  Kimahuri, Kenya. (AFP)
Farmers tend newly planted trees in Kimahuri, Kenya. (AFP)

In their quest to rapidly learn about farming while holding down office jobs in the city, urban farmers are forever on their phones, carrying out ‘supervisory farming’.

“Did you manage to weed today?” “Did you buy the fertilizers?” “Is it still raining?” “How are the animals doing?” “I’ll come over this weekend and check on the progress” are conversations you’ll overhear in corridors and offices as they check in with their farm managers and caretakers.

You can easily identify an urban farmer in social circles. They are the ones who will steer the conversation to “farming is the way to go” at dinner tables, lunches and casual encounters, and then pull out their cellphones to proudly show anyone who cares a picture of their first crop.

When urban farmers are not on their phones, they’re on the internet checking out farming websites and forums – how to farm the next crop; which animals to buy next. What they lack in experience, they make up for with technological know-how.

Luckily, their experienced counterparts are usually patient and happy to help them and explain the process of farming. The market for farming products in Kenya and beyond is huge, and farmers are only too aware that they can’t meet this demand on their own. Jealousy and conflicts are rare – instead, experienced farmers encourage the youngsters and show them the ropes with the aim of greater customer satisfaction in mind.

In a country where agriculture accounts for almost 51% of the GDP, urban farmers like Rosa are playing a key role in providing employment and producing a greater variety of food in Kenya. Rosa may be new at it but she’s learning fast. She has already realised the importance of spreading the risks of various forms of farming: once she gets her profit from her next harvest, she will invest it in beekeeping. She’s only 36 years old but she’s already planning her exit from formal employment in 2016.

Mary Itumbi is a journalist based in Nairobi.