In November 2018, NFU staff and British farmers headed to East Africa to as part of a project run by Farm Africa. Emily Ashworth finds out more.
Africa may be over 7,000 miles away, but the the agricultural challenges they face might be closer to home than you realise.
Weather, soil quality, access to land; the list is endless, but in November 2018, a group of NFU staff and British farmers travelled to East Africa to exchange ideas with Kenyan farmers and witness how small changes to their farming practices could provide them with a brighter future.
The team, led by Adam Bedford, North East regional director of the NFU, visited farmers taking part in projects run by Farm Africa, an international charity which dedicates itself to helping farmers increase yields and profits, and encourages environmental sustainability to ensure the land continues to be productive for generations to come.
One initiative, the Growing Futures project, particularly impressed Adam and his colleague, Rachel Hallos, NFU West Riding county chairwoman. Growing Futures showcases the invaluable skills the charity provides for Kenyan farmers.
It helps farmers establish successful horticulture businesses by working closely with Farm Africa staff to identify marketable crops in high demand and is funded by Aldi UK and UK Aid Match funding from the Government.
Adam and Rachel were taken by Lucy Marani’s story, a 43-yearold farmer who now grows French beans on a steep hillside with her family.
“These farmers are hungry for education,” says Rachel, a beef and sheep farmer from West Yorkshire.
“Before, Lucy walked for half a day to sell her produce and now, she has been able to afford to put both her sons through education and rather than have them work for her, she has given them a portion of her land to run their own businesses from.”
Previously, Lucy used to plant local produce such as garden peas but found the challenges overwhelming.
Lucy says: “Before, I did not look for a market until the crops were ready, but at that point there were so many peas already being sold that there was no market. By the time I found a buyer, the crops would have gone rotten.
“We used to carry them to the bus stop near a school, then take them in a vehicle to town.
“Some went unsold and we would make losses. We cannot irrigate this field, so the beans are rain-fed and during the dry season we plant downstream where we can irrigate. The project has changed my life and although I started small, I have grown bigger and it has helped me to educate my children.”
With Farm Africa’s additional guidance, she has learnt how to spray her own crops, how to market her produce and organise her finances.
“It’s impressive,” says Adam, who has visited Africa for the second time.
“It values the idea of producing more and selling it for more.
“They are now selling beans both domestically and internationally and meeting the required GlobalGAP standard.”
Of course, the main striking difference between British and Kenyan farming is how much smaller farms are in Kenya, as the vast majority farm on plots of land averaging just 0.47 hectares, less than 1 per cent of the size of the average British farm.
But the experience also highlighted similar problems Kenyan and UK farmers face.
Adam says: “These issues are on completely different scales, but weather is a problem for a start.
“They have to find crops to fit the climate and if you look at our weather history over the last year, there are parallel problems there.
“Also, access to land, finance and difficulty in starting farming are all relevant.”
But the team’s visit to Africa was a two-way learning experience says Rachel, and not just beneficial for the Kenyan farmers they met.
“The farmers there have to work together because there is no other option,” she says.
“We over-complicate things too much and get so caught up in the supply chain, it makes me wonder what we could achieve here in the UK by working more collaboratively.”
While all farming is still done predominantly by hand, Rachel admired some of the agricultural methods practiced, praising the innovative yet simple ethos behind their approach.
“Honestly, you should have seen some of this stuff,” says Rachel.
“There is one place for the storage and collection of the beans, but there is no refrigerating system, so they have a process where they pour water over charcoal and the reaction from this keeps the room cool.
“They work to the best of their resources. They have beautiful soil too, and that’s because it’s tended to naturally. “It really makes you think about your own farming processes at home.”
There is indeed more to be accomplished, and as Rachel says, sometimes the question is asked: Why help farmers in another country rather than focus on the UK?
“For me, it’s a moral thing and helping those that are less fortunate than us,” she says.
“Farmers in the UK have access to so much education, and what I say to everyone about Farm Africa is, it isn’t about giving out money, it is about giving out education.
“It is about allowing farmers to fund themselves, so their children can go to school, clothe them to go to school and Farm Africa have increased the older generation’s knowledge of how to do things too.
“Why wouldn’t we want to teach another country how to feed themselves rather than rely on other people to?” In April, Adam will run in the Virgin Money London Marathon, as part of the ‘Running Farmers team’ alongside NFU president Minette Batters, NFU vice president Stuart Roberts, farmer and host of the Rock n Roll Farming podcast Will Evans, Martin Rogers and Jim McKeane.
In support of Farm Africa’s Coffee is Life Appeal, Adam is an advocate for the work Farm Africa do on the ground. “I have personally seen the difference it makes,” says Adam.
“It comes down to helping farmers, and although the NFU is not a charity, it’s what I do for a job. It is intensively practical and what resonates with me is that it focuses on people, and farmers who are just doing their best.”
You can sponsor the Running Farmers online and give farmers in Africa the opportunity to thrive.