East African farm in a backpack concept

The Backpack Farm Agriculture Programme (BPF) from Kenya has been named as one of the world’s best sustainability ideas by Forbes magazine.

The programme encompasses five stages of development designed to support the successful launch and expansion of local agriculture co-operatives or “clusterings” by building real capacity.
Phase 1 of the programme is made up of assessment and mobilisation (SCM), phase 2 addresses training and production, phase 3 encompasses production monitoring and market distribution strategies, phase 4 looks at assessment and risk management, and the final phase tackles expansion through reinvestment to ensure transparency, sustainability and natural expansion models within rural sector communities.
The BPF is the brainchild of Rachel Zedeck, who got the idea while she was in Southern Sudan. “I was standing on a runway watching women carry 90kg 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? 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.”
The standard BPF is made up of a number of instruments, namely:
• A soil testing bag.
• An optional water tank.
• A “fusion nutrition” soil and crop protection programme.
•An indigenous or drought-resistant hybrid (certified) seed pack that can be customised according to the best crops for the client’s region, climate and market. The seed varieties range from cereals, local beans, green leafy vegetables, and potatoes to cash food crops like tomatoes, fine “French” beans, sugar snaps, watermelon, passion fruit and more. Each crop variety is specially selected for its hardiness and drought resistance.
• A John Deere Water Technologies’ Gravity Fed Drip Irrigation System. This customised drip irrigation kit requires no electricity to run, and offers an effective method of getting water to the roots of crops, without losing it in broad sprinkler systems, runoff or evaporation. The system works in both flat and slightly sloped growing areas. Perhaps most importantly, because the water is fed directly to the soil around plant roots, farmers need to apply less water to their crops. This makes it easier for them to ensure that their crops are watered, even in dry seasons.
• An 8-12 litre chemical sprayer that helps farmers apply crop protection agriculture inputs. The sprayer aids the farmers to avoid wasting costly inputs and over-exposing themselves to chemical inputs. In addition, when fertilizers and pesticides are getting only where they need to be, they are less likely to enter groundwater or drinking water. The sprayer comes with standard protective equipment – goggles, mask, gloves and a measuring cup – required by Kenyan law.
• A training manual that enables small landholder farmers to become better farmers and business people. The detailed training, in the form of “hut meetings” teaches farmers about sustainable agricultural techniques such as crop rotation, soil preparation, and effective harvesting and storage. It also addresses development of new ways of selling their surplus crops at market, so that they can increase their cash income.
• A crop journal/diary (co-ordinated with monitoring and evaluation framework and field assessment) that helps growers to keep notes on successes and challenges, as they learn what works best on their piece of land. If the farmers are supported by a UN or non-governmental organisation’s project, it is also an essential tool in monitoring their progress and helping to build their capacity.
Since being launched in 2009 to smallholder farmers, the BPF has gained much popularity and is no longer just sold in Nairobi, Kenya, but is also available throughout Sudan, Tanzania and Rwanda. “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, which immediately has a ‘wow’ factor. Initially we started to sell in Nairobi but realised that centralising our sales and distribution model would limit our reach. We believe Africa has the potential to feed not only the region but the whole world,” says Zedeck.
She firmly believes this and says most of the uncertainty regarding smallholder farming in these regions stems from lack of knowledge. “Southern Sudan imports 98% of its food, while more than 78% of its land is grade-one fertile soil – better than any oil resources. This soil is not only fertile but virgin, meaning it has never been corrupted by damaging fertilizers or pesticides. Southern Sudan could become the organic capital of the world. Unfortunately, the local population are mostly pastoralist 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.”
BPF headquarters: Tel +254 (0) 20 233 1754; grow@backpackfarm.com; website: www.backpackfarm.com

* There are currently seven franchise distribution centres and training farms in Kenya and one in South Sudan. Kenya’s network operates in Busia, Eldoret, Kakamega, Meru, Naivasha, Thika and Wote. Additional sites are to be opened in Kisee, Kisumu, Kitale, Nakuru and Timau.

The Backpack Farm initiative is best described as an innovative approach to:
•    Giving smallholder farmers access to affordable eco-friendly farming agri-tech inputs and training.
•    Materially improving crop yields to semi-commercial levels of production.
•    Improving the income of smallholder farmers and rural communities – in particular women, who produce 80% of food reserves in East Africa.
•     Improving access to and management of water in rural communities – especially in arid lands – through training in combination with a state-of-the-art drip irrigation system.
•    Providing greater nutrition to populations suffering from nutritional deficits.
•    Developing sustainable agriculture value chains capable of supporting local, regional and international marketplaces.
•    Reducing time in the field to manage and water crops, which can help to improve literacy and education of women and the girl child.