Changing lives

Africa’s smallholder farmers can grow barely enough to feed themselves. Now, after almost two decades of trial, error, and close observation, Paul Seward has hit upon a winning formula to help them. His not-for-profit organization, Farm Input Promotions Africa (FIPS), distributes farm inputs like seeds and fertilizers in small packets – making them accessible, affordable and easy to use. We asked Paul to tell us a bit about what makes his method successful.

“I was brought up on a farm in the United Kingdom, became a farmer, then studied soil fertility and went to work in agricultural development in Africa. But after three years, I realized that the fantastic technology we were working on never reached the farmers we were trying to help –the information was not getting the farmers themselves. Now my work with FIPS is bridging that gap.

Our main goal is food security. We want everybody in Sub-Saharan Africa to have enough to eat. The majority of smallholders we work with farm 1–2 hectare plots, typically growing maize, sorghum, millet, rice, beans, cowpea, banana, potato, cassava and sweet potato. It’s a good mix, but often they plant low-yielding varieties, and their soils are depleted. As a result, they only produce enough food for six months, then must rely on relatives working in the city for money to buy food and other basic necessities. We call this “sub-subsistence”.

More robust crop varieties do exist – bred by private companies or by government research stations – but are inaccessible to most farmers. They are sold a long way from most farms, and the seeds and fertilizers only come packaged in large bags, which are simply unaffordable.

We talk to farmers, look at what crops, livestock and constraints they have, and assess the crop diseases or soil nutrient deficiencies that affect their harvests. Once we’re clear about what’s needed to improve productivity, we partner with researchers, companies and universities to access their technology – whether it’s seed, fertilizer or other inputs – and bring it to the village level. For example, if we find that farmers are growing the wrong variety of maize, we’ll go to breeders and ask for better varieties. If the new crop is successful, farmers will have enough money to buy more. Other seeds, like cowpeas and sorghum, are available from research stations where improved varieties are being developed – these seeds can be saved, replanted and also sold on for a profit.

But what makes our method different is that we distribute seeds and fertilizers in small packets. Instead of giving 10 kilograms of seed to one farmer and hoping that others will follow suit, we give 25 grams to each farmer in a village – rich or poor, young or old, male or female – and teach them each how to grow them. This way, each farmer experiments, and everybody gets to succeed.

To disseminate inputs and training, we train self-employed village-based advisors – farmers trusted by the others in their community – who distribute inputs to farmers and serve as a go-to person for support. We teach them good agricultural practice, how to reach all the farmers in their villages, and how to make money from input supply and other services.

This way of working can take all the farmers in a village from food deficit to surplus within two years. So far, we’ve created opportunities for 2,000 village advisors who are working with about 500,000 farmers. And this is just the beginning – in Kenya alone, there are 5 million farmers and we estimate that we need 40,000 village advisors to reach all the smallholders in Kenya and Tanzania.

It’s a simple solution, and it doesn’t cost much. But we need help. We need to enthuse youth back to agriculture. We need support with organization development, so that we can spread our concept into different countries while maintaining quality. But most of all, we need people – like-minded people who share the same vision and passion to help those who are worse off than themselves. If we can get the right ideas and technology into the hands of the people, we can make lives a lot better.”

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