One Social Entrepreneur’s Quest to Revolutionize the Kenyan Agricultural Sector | Q1, 2017.
Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Calgary Chapter hosted a visit from Samuel Wachieni, a Kenyan social entrepreneur. Samuel’s visit was part of EWB’s Kumvana Program – an annual exchange in which top entrepreneurs and leaders from sub-Saharan Africa visit Canada to learn from and share their own experiences with Canadian leaders in their respective sectors.
Samuel is the co-founder of Crowd Farm Africa, a business that seeks to unlock the potential of Kenya’s agricultural sector by pooling investment and resources to support commercial farming in his country. While in Calgary, Samuel engaged in several insightful exchanges with local farmers, investors, non-profits, and entrepreneurs. He also delivered two public presentations on his business venture. The following is a sample of the discussion members of our chapter had with Samuel regarding his motivation and experience in running a social enterprise, and the systemic challenges he seeks to address.
Q: How did you start your career in social change work?
A: After college, I started my career in the non-profit sector. I worked in community health education programs and humanitarian programs… we were doing a lot of good.
What happens in the non-profit sector in Kenya is that you get money from donors including bilateral grants, which is sometimes taxpayers’ money from other richer countries. Through this funding, you work with local communities in your country, improving their health indicators and all that. You support what we call OVCs – orphans and vulnerable children – to get their education and supplement their food rations, you work with Community Health Workers and youth peer educators to mobilize communities for the adoption of health behaviors.
A lot of the people – we call them “beneficiaries” – served by these programs are farmers. This is a farmer who comes to you because they need food. This is a farmer who cannot afford to take his children to school. And this is a farmer who when they get sick, or when their children get sick, cannot afford to take themselves to the hospital.
Q: What inspired you to make a change in your career?
A: Initially, I was doing good and working, and I was happy. I was getting paid to do good. But then my co-founder was working for a non-profit agribusiness. They worked with small-holder farmers, trying to improve their food production systems. The co-founder and I had been friends, we had been neighbors growing up.
We would meet at social events, and of course catch up with what is happening in our lives. But then he would have a lot of information about the good work they’re doing with the farmers. And he said, “It is not practical that I am working with them on this end, trying to help them get out of poverty using their model of production, while they are the same people who come to you asking for food.” So that was a very confusing dilemma. We didn’t have an answer, and of course, when something is confusing, you leave it. So, we kept pushing it away.
So then, at some point, in 2010, the program I was working with was ending but I was also getting disillusioned with the aid model. There were a lot of things I did not agree with on the model. I felt like aid is designed in a way that it addresses the symptoms rather than dealing with the real root cause of poverty. The systems that cause poverty. For instance, the amount of money we would spend on feeding programmes rather than establishing a food production system is a lot. I kept wondering, why can’t we use aid money in working with these beneficiaries to create an economic system than providing them with hand-outs? Maybe we can empower them to sustainably produce their own food?
Driven by this dilemma, my friend and I started a discussion on what we could do to contribute. And we agreed that the easiest road to get Kenya and Africa out of poverty is through agriculture. He had worked in that sector and had a lot of data, but we had to figure out a model to open it up. The thinking was that 80 percent of the population in Africa is dependent on agriculture. In Kenya, it’s 65 percent. If you figure out an agricultural model that works, you’re addressing the needs of so many people because they’re tied to this sector. So how do we create a model around that?
Q: How are you hoping to address these challenges through your social enterprise?
A: What happens in the Kenyan market, and I guess in any other market – if you are a small producer, you cannot really get into supply agreements and contracts with restaurants and big consumers unless you promise two things; Quantity and Consistency. Because of that requirement, many large buyers do not want to discuss this with small holder farmers, because they know they will not get a consistent supply in the quantities they require.
As a result, middle men or what we call brokers come in. They source the produce from numerous small holder farmers daily and supply the consolidated produce to the buyers. Many times, these brokers exploit the small holder farmers and pay very little for the produce. As a result, farmers remain the victims in this food production and distribution system. They are always at the mercy of the brokers.
Our initial idea was that we would get into contract farming. We thought we would establish shareholding model farms of about 100 acres, and with this, we could enter profitable contracts where we could be able supply enough produce and consistently. These model farms would be centrally managed and the numerous shareholders/farmers would earn a percentage of the revenues while the local community would lease the land, provide labour and get paid a decent wage.
One of the other challenges in Kenya is that we have three kinds of land: public land, private land, and community land. The private land is what currently gets farmed, but this keeps getting subdivided into smaller and smaller sections as the farms are passed down from generation to generation with the current average being 2.5 acres. It’s almost impossible to farm at a sufficient scale to be economically viable. But the community lands are owned by different communities/tribes, and typically lie fallow. These lands belong to the whole community, so if you want to use it to farm, you lease it from the community. Sometimes it may not be easy to pay the lease in cash since the land is owned communally, the user could be asked to convert the lease amount into a tangible project that benefits the whole community, like a school or hospital or a water project. This is a high cost for an individual, but if we can create a commercial-scale farm, we can create the type of profit that would allow us to re-invest in these communities and expand these types of farms.
Q: Since you’ve been in Canada, what kinds of reactions have you had when you tell people about your business?
A: I have not had a lot of conversations outside of Africa. During my four week stay in Canada, the biggest recurring question is, “How do you manage the accounts of people investing in the farm? All these people give you this money, and they will need to get this money out. And they could be small tiny amounts.” So the financial model has been the biggest question, whether we have the capacity and energy to manage that. We will need to refine how we come up with a financial model that is sensible and manageable and, of course, profitable, so that we’re not losing our money in transaction costs.
I visited Olds College [an agricultural college 100 km north of Calgary], and one of the discussions we had was, “If you had 1 million dollars, what would you invest in: a farm or a Tim Hortons [coffee shop]?” It’s cheaper to franchise a Tim Hortons than to establish a farm! It has more revenue than a farm. From an economic point of view, it doesn’t make sense [to the students] to go to a farm.
If we do not figure out a profitable food production model, no young person will go to that space. What does that mean? Food prices will keep going up, and at some point, we may not have a sustainable food supply chain. So we’re trying to see if we can figure out an efficient, economical way of producing food, so that the industry can attract more people.
EWB Calgary thanks Samuel for sharing his time and passion with us during his visit to Calgary. For an extended version of this interview, please visit one of our chapter member’s blogs, Pine Tree Republic. Make sure to keep up-to-date on Samuel’s venture through the Crowd Farm Africa website.
Simplifying Sustainability | Author: Scott McKean | Jan. 25th, 2017
I love the concept of sustainability because it’s almost impossible to explain in its entirety to someone. The biologists I know would think of ecosystems and environmental health. The economists would think of distributed income and abolishing poverty. The majority of the public would likely think of climate change and all the green washing and politics associated with that. But the truth is that sustainability fails the minute it is put inside one of these silos – because true, deep sustainability depends on the interconnected relationships between people, politics, productivity, and the planet. It is necessarily complex, interwoven, and therefore impossible to categorize in anything but the simplest terms. That is why Our Common Future defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – anything deeper would have resulted in an endless pit of definitions, contradictions, and confusion.
EWB Calgary is taking on a brave initiative to promote the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and localize them to Calgary. We think that Calgary can truly be the most sustainable city in North America and want to be leaders in making this happen. We want to create a coalition of the willing – businesses, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), public institutions, and every other group in between to come together and show the rest of North America how a City traditionally defined by oil and gas can lead in sustainability.
But EWB isn’t stopping there. We are systems change leaders and full of inspired people that care deeply about the world they live in. The eradication of poverty may be EWB’s primary mission, but it was amazing to sit down with the rest of EWB Canada and see how our ventures are contributing to and rallying behind the issuance of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
On November 5th 2016, EWB Calgary participated in the (Re)Connect 2016 worldwide conference call with EWB colleagues in Accra and Kumasi in Ghana, Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, and Vancouver. The most amazing part of this conference was seeing how each team is interpreting the SDGs differently. Some chapters are using it as a PIVOT opportunity to educate and improve the existing ventures. Others are seeing it directly through the eradication of poverty lens. Some are focusing on water, while others are using it to energize their existing advocacy campaigns that are already tackling root causes of (Un)Sustainability. We left the conference call inspired and ready to tackle our bold venture. On a personal level, these events give me hope that real change isn’t a far off ideal, but something we can accomplish every day as small grassroots groups (whether abroad with EWB’s ventures or right here at home!).
EWB Calgary is currently defining the path to sustainability it’s going to take locally.
Watch this space for updates and how to get involved.
2014 Volunteers from Calgary
2013 Volunteers from Calgary
Laurie Cunningham (EWB Calgary Chapter) – Growth Mosaic, Business Consulting in Accra, Ghana
Tim Hirtle (TransCanada) – Business Development Services in Lusaka, Zambia
Leanne LeBlanc (TransCanada) – Governance & Rural Infrastructure in Tamale, Ghana
Blake Adair (Agrium) – Mobile Business Clinics in Accra, Ghana
James Thorogood (UofC) – Growth Mosaic in Accra, Ghana
Julia Milner (UofC) – Agriculture Value Chains in Uganda & Kenya