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Revolutionary road trip on the sorghum trail

Sorghum copes with erratic rainfall and long dry spells better than maize (© Michael Hoevel)
Sorghum copes with erratic rainfall and long dry spells better than maize
© Michael Hoevel

Ninety kilometres of potholed dirt road from the nearest market town, the village of Endau in Machakos County, central Kenya, is an unlikely place for a revolution. It's a semi-arid area that in recent years has struggled to produce a maize crop from nutrient depleted, rain starved soils, where stored crops are routinely subject to pest infestation and buyers are few. Recently, however, I visited Endau to see the progress of a new project being run by the Pan African Agribusiness and Agro-Industry Coalition (PanAAC), an African not-for-profit organisation which seeks to strengthen rural African value chains as a means of fighting poverty and hunger.

PanAAC has been working with local smallholder farmers to shift from growing maize to growing sorghum, which grows well in semi-arid areas like Endau because of the crop's tolerance to drought and heat. And once we arrived in the village itself, the reason for championing sorghum was clear: while the maize crops we saw had dried up and failed to produce ears, the sorghum in neighbouring fields seemed to be flourishing.

What's in a value chain?

An agricultural value chain describes the journey of a product from producer to consumer, through a number of value-adding stages. These include: research and development of, for example, improved seeds, fertilisers and tools; distribution and adoption of these products to increase farm yields; production and trading of the crop by farmers; processing and manufacturing of final products, and finally retail and export, that sees finished products sold to companies or directly to consumers. All across rural Africa, it seems an agricultural revolution is surfacing, in which these value chains are being strengthened, to great effect.

Rural value chains are frequently touted as important drivers of early economic growth and employment in Africa, and there is a growing set of literature to validate this. According to the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), value chains are "arguably the best way for smallholder farmers to become integrated into modern markets." Interestingly, China went through a similar process, with rural value chains playing a prominent role in its early market development in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, rural Chinese firms rose from about 10 per cent to nearly 40 per cent of national gross industrial output between 1979 and 1996.

Strengthening the sorghum chain

Profits from sales of sorghum are enabling farmers to invest in other businesses, such as brick-making (© Michael Hoevel)
Profits from sales of sorghum are enabling farmers to invest in other businesses, such as brick-making
© Michael Hoevel

In developing a value chain for sorghum in this part of Kenya, PanAAC has trained over 5,000 farmers in sorghum production, business management and meeting market needs. New technologies have been introduced, including inexpensive, bespoke, threshing machinery to replace traditional threshing practices which can damage the crop and leave it vulnerable to aflatoxins. A land programme has also used GPS mapping software to detail individual ownership of land.

The first farmer we met in Endau had planted about five acres with sorghum - about half her land. The profits she made helped her to build a brick and stucco house, and to set up a small brick-making factory to generate additional off-farm income. Another farmer, Jeremiah Kioko, had switched to growing sorghum on his two acres of land the previous year, enough to generate extra profits to afford the down payment for a simple milling machine. He now charges his fellow villagers 10 Kenyan shillings for each kilogram of grain that he mills. Milling up to 1,000 kilograms per day, Kioko believes he will be able to pay off the machine within the next year.

Blueprint for change

Jeremiah Kioko mills grain for his neighbours, boosting his income (© Michael Hoevel)
Jeremiah Kioko mills grain for his neighbours, boosting his income
© Michael Hoevel

Kioko and his fellow farmers also have a guaranteed market for their sorghum, thanks to an agreement PanAAC negotiated with East African Breweries Limited (EABL). The company uses sorghum to brew its popular Senator Keg Beer - named, incidentally, around the same time the then Senator Barack Obama visited the region back in 2004. The brewery was happy to get a local source for its raw ingredients while farmers were able to get as much as four times the price for their harvest. EABL even distributed around 4 tonnes of sorghum seed to their new suppliers, allocated to farmers according to their farm size.

The PanAAC value chain programme is also helping to build the institutional fabric of these communities, bringing people together to share information, expertise and resources. I met many farmers who spoke as much about the camaraderie they now shared with each other as they did about their improved harvests and higher incomes.

This tale of hope in Endau can become a blueprint for Kenya, and the African continent. When equipped with the resources, knowledge and market access, African farmers can build vibrant communities and economies, and potentially put poverty in the past.

This article is based on Once Upon a Village Value Chain published in the Huffington Post (July 2013)

Written by: Michael Hoevel

Date published: July 2013

 

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