Veronica Musoti owns a small dairy farm in Kenya’s Cherang’any Hills. Until recently, she raised her cows the same way farmers in the community always have, letting them out to graze on the grass surrounding her home. But that approach strains the local fodder supply, and the irregular and unsupervised feeding also leads to low productivity: Veronica received less than 1.5 gallons of milk from her cows each day, making it hard for her to earn a living.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, millions of small family farmers like Veronica work plots of land no larger than a few acres, raising livestock or growing cash crops and staple foods.
These farmers form the backbone of the rural economy across much of the region. However, many of them remain mired in poverty because of the persistent gap between potential yields and what they actually achieve on their farms. The Food and Agriculture Organization, for example, calculates that farmers in the United States harvest six times more corn per acre than those in Africa. Even farms in other emerging markets like India, are often 50 percent more productive than those in Africa.
There are several reasons for this, including African farmers’ limited access to technology and high-quality agricultural inputs. However, one of the greatest challenges facing Africa’s family farmers is a lack of good information.
Few farmers receive formal skills training, in part because farming communities are often widely dispersed and located in rugged areas, making it costly and time-consuming for extension agents to reach them.
As a result, farmers typically copy what they see older relatives and neighbors do, even if their techniques limit productivity and earnings.
In 2013, John Deere approached the nonprofit organization TechnoServe with an idea. Deere had used video technology for years to train salespeople and technicians; could video training be adapted to benefit the lives of farmers and increase the availability of staple foods in Africa?
That idea led to the launch the following year of the Mobile Training Unit (MTU) project, which aimed to work with dairy farmers and staple-grain growers in Kenya and Ghana.
At the center of the project is the mobile training unit, a box truck modified to screen training videos and to host workshops. While these vehicles have contributed to public health campaigns elsewhere, they have rarely been used to provide agronomy training to farmers in Africa. Nevertheless, the project has shown these trucks to be an effective tool for delivering training to a large number of farmers.
The MTU’s mobility makes it easy to reach widely rural communities, while the videos are engaging for farmers, ensuring high attendance. The MTU visits each farming community multiple times per year, providing timely training that is synced to the growing cycle. As a result, the program’s reach vastly exceeded expectations: the first phase of the project had a target to train 10,000 farmers in Kenya and Ghana, but it ultimately trained more than 17,000 farmers.
The project’s curriculum focuses on basic, high-impact techniques that boost productivity and preserve agricultural landscapes. In developing lessons and training materials, MTU project staff first learn the needs of farmers, and then work to develop training materials. Lessons cover topics from proper spacing of crops during planting to effective water management and how to cost-effectively use fertilizer.
It typically takes more than a video to encourage risk-averse farmers to change how they do their work, however. For that reason, MTU sessions are supplemented by hands-on training on agricultural demo plots.
The project staff selects “pioneer farmers” who are willing to demonstrate techniques on their own farms. To help growers access tools, services, and markets, the project also worked with them to establish or strengthen small, farmer-owned businesses and build connections with buyers and financial institutions.
This approach to training has been effective in changing behavior. In Ghana, 60 percent of participating farmers were found to have adopted good agricultural practices after participating in the project. In Kenya, an evaluation found that 78 percent of female participants were able to retain what they had learned about good agricultural practices, while 61 percent of their male counterparts were able to do the same.
This change in behavior has led to improved productivity. In Kenya, milk yields on participating farms increased by 41 percent. In Ghana, meanwhile, productivity gains varied by crop, from 73 percent to more than 400 percent.
The MTU project has helped to change Veronica’s life. She learned a number of techniques to improve the productivity of her herd, with her cows’ milk production increasing five-fold. “This year, we had some drought, we missed some feeds for the cows, but I never gave up. I continued, and here [the cows] are,” she said, pointing to her healthy herd. Veronica has used the extra income to help pay for her grandchildren’s education, as well as improved feed for her cows. With her increased earnings providing a means of repayment, she plans to apply for a loan to purchase a high-yielding dairy cow.
Since 2013, TechnoServe has worked with John Deere and the John Deere Foundation to help small, family farmers in Ghana and Kenya grow more food and lift their families out of poverty. To date, the partnership’s work has benefited nearly 50,000 farmers.
TechnoServe works with enterprising men and women in the developing world to build competitive farms, businesses, and industries. A nonprofit organization operating in 29 countries, TechnoServe is a leader in harnessing the power of the private sector to help people lift themselves out of poverty. By linking people to information, capital, and markets, it has helped millions to create lasting prosperity for their families and communities.
TechnoServe has earned a 4-star rating from independent evaluator Charity Navigator for the last 11 years, placing it in the top 1 percent of all its rated nonprofits. With nearly 50 years of proven results, TechnoServe believes in the power of private enterprise to transform lives.