This article is supported by the CASA programme.
For 40-year-old Beatrice Mulwale, a smallholder farmer from western Kenya, poor yields and low income had been par for the course for most of her farming life.
The part-time tailor from Lubao, a remote area near Kakamega town, took to farming to provide a secondary source of income to feed and school her four children. But she says it always resulted in disappointment.
This all changed, she says, when she was introduced in 2013 to One Acre Fund, a Kenya-based project that aims to help smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa capitalise on the little they have, offering loans in the form of farm inputs such as seeds and fertiliser, and training on modern agricultural techniques.
"Before I joined One Acre Fund, I had a lot of problems. Getting seedlings was a problem and there was no one to advise me on proper farming methods," says Mulwale. "But now that I have joined them, things are good because they have taught us how to farm and they also provide us with seedlings on time after which we repay them gradually."
Sixty-two-year-old Maurice Lubembe tells a similar story: he ventured into carpentry when he realised farming alone wasn't enough to care for his wife and six children.
"I own 2.5 acres of land out of which I use about 2 acres for farming," he says. "Initially, life was very hard for me as a farmer as I could only manage to harvest one bag of maize from a whole acre of land. To me, that amount of maize wasn't worth selling, and I used it to feed my family, but it still that wasn't enough for us... we lacked enough food back then."
Since joining One Acre Fund in 2009 he says his life is greatly improved and he is able to take care of his family. "I can easily harvest as much as 12 bags of maize from only half an acre of land," Lubembe says. "One Acre Fund has also enabled me to build a house for my family and school all my children who are now grown up."
Lack of access to quality farm inputs and information on the best farming practices are serious issues facing farmers such as these, whose struggles are typical among smallholders across Sub-Saharan Africa.
According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are at least 400 million smallholder farmers around the world, who produce about 80 per cent of the food consumed in Africa and Asia.
However, often neglected by their governments, many of these small-scale farmers languish in poverty, since they lack the proper farming technology and inputs to produce enough to sustain their families. The FAO says that smallholder farmers in Africa normally have little control over policies that concern their lives or that affect agricultural production.
One Acre Fund is one of a number of non-profit organisations trying to mitigate this problem and improve the lives of farmers through finance and microcredit schemes.
Lubao is a small town known for its dog trade, but, thanks to One Acre Fund's input, residents such as Mulwale and Lubembe have been able to find a more lucrative way of life from their farms. As well as seeds and fertilisers on credit, farmers can receive tools such as mobile phones, solar lamps and energy-saving jikos (stoves).
The social enterprise is able to sustain itself through loan repayments from farmers and funding from donor organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Global Innovation Fund and Barr Foundation.
Winnie Akiso, the group's Kenya communications coordinator, tells SciDev.Net that One Acre Fund had only about 40 farmers when it first began, but today has over 300,000 enrolled in Kenya alone. It also works with farmers in Burundi, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
"We have just started our 2020 season enrolment and are hoping to have even more farmers enlist with us," Akiso adds.
Farmers are encouraged to enrol in groups so that they can support each other during the planting, weeding and harvesting periods and reduce costs. "These groups are also important in the repayment of loans as they can contribute money towards repayment whenever they meet," says Akiso.
Gaitano Milimu, another Kenyan farmer who turned to the organisation for support, tells SciDev.Net: "These loans are quite affordable to poor farmers like us as they give us ample time to pay it back once we have managed to sort our lives out through our harvests.
Boosting yields and profits
Anushka Ratnayake is founder and CEO of myAgro, another organisation which helps small-scale farmers access finance. She says that smallholder farmers in Africa contribute greatly to feeding their nations yet remain among the poorest groups of people on the continent.
"Most of the governments in Sub-Saharan Africa fail in their role to assist smallholder farmers with access to farm inputs, and this is where micro-finance and other small credit and loans organisations come in handy," she tells SciDev.Net.
MyAgro helps farmers save little by little in a bankless savings scheme based on scratch cards purchasable at local stores.
"The farmers buy the scratch cards and text the code into their phones, after which their myAgro accounts are automatically loaded with credit equal to the amount of money they spent," says Ratnayake. As soon as they have saved enough in their accounts, myAgro delivers seeds, fertiliser and one-on-one training on the best farming methods before the planting season begins, she adds.
"Farmers who have registered with myAgro also have the additional advantage of receiving news on agricultural trends and the best market seasons through their phones," explains Ratnayake, adding that their farmers have reported a 50 per cent increase in production and profits. Ratnayake and Akiso both agree that governments should consider investing more in smallholder farming as they also stand to benefit when these farmers flourish.
Clifford Obiero, chairman of the land resource department at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, believes that lack of adequate government support is the main reason why smallholder farmers are suffering in Kenya today.
"Policymakers need to be at the forefront in enlightening people on the importance of technology in the field of agriculture today," he tells SciDev.Net. "With the accessibility to phones today, farmers no longer have to struggle making long queues at high-interest loan banks or travel long distances to get information on farming techniques."
African governments should realise the potential of these small-scale farmers in the development of the economy and be the first to support them in their farming efforts, he adds.
The CASA programme (Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusiness) aims to increase global investment in agribusinesses which trade with smallholders in equitable commercial relationships, increasing smallholders' incomes and climate resilience. Visit www.casaprogramme.com for information and resources.