Enjoy the PlanetShifter.com interview with Rachel Zedeck, Founder and Managing Director, Backpack Farm Program from the Medea Group - by Willi Paul
"These farmers are not charity cases nor are they innocent. They will just as easily take advantage of the situation if they are given the opportunity for “freebies.” We need to adjust the mindset that this is ‘business not aid.’
The Backpack Farm Agricultural Program (BPF)
More than 14 million people in the Horn of Africa are in need of international food aid. At the same time, Africa has the agricultural potential not only to feed the continent, but also the world.
The Backpack Farm Agricultural Program (BPF) provides not just farm supplements and training but a complete 5 phase program ensuring small-scale farmers can increase their harvests and improve their qualities of life.
Farmers purchase an ergonomic PE/Canvas, reusable backpack filled with essential agricultural inputs including certified, drought resistant and indigenous seed varieties, reduced toxicity pesticides (when required) and irrigation tools. They also receive training and manual on how best to use the backpack tools. as well as other skills like non-tillage and water harvesting. Small landholder farmers are then able to produce as much crop per acre as semi-commercial if not commercial farms. Farmers grow more food to feed their families, or to sell at market.
The BPF Program was designed for support farmers working together to create agricultural cooperatives. Through business and agricultural training, farmers are able to combine their efforts to get good value for the crops they choose to sell at market. This helps farmers move beyond subsistence farming; they can use agriculture to improving their quality of life.
As climate change, conflict and rising food prices leave more and more people in Africa hungry, the Backpack Farm is an ideal tool to ensure Africans become self-sufficient facilitating food security and nutrition, income generation, technical capacity and gender equality. Africahas the potential to escape food dependency if given the right tools.
Rachel Zedeck guides the organization with more than a decade of personal hands-on experience facilitating international business and social development in post conflict countries including Kosovo, Jordan, Iraq, Kenya and Southern Sudan.
Zedeck founded Medea Group with the vision is to empower commercial, governmental and non-profit organizations with unique knowledge to make critical decisions, leverage opportunities and minimize risk in Africa’s post conflict regions and emerging markets to facilitate responsible, foreign direct investment (FDI). She believes it is possible to “do good making money” in the world.
Before founding Medea Group, Ms. Zedeck spent three years managing a commercial consultancy operating in Jordan and Iraq facilitating international business development for Middle East and Multi- national firms establishing business channels and independent project finance in the region. After a career in the telecommunications sector, Ms. Zedeck spent two and a half years in Kosovo as a site coordinator for one of the largest minority protection and education programs before being recruited for Director level positions in both the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Her development efforts included the design and implementation of IT infrastructure and support of technical requirements for the 2002 elections for the Kosovar Provisional Institution of Self Government (PISG) including the drafting of communications and IT policy for use in legislation, coordination of field operations and managing a team of local, multi-ethnic Kosovar, Serbian and international staff. During this tenure, Zedeck was first exposed to the complex challenges facing humanitarian and commercial organizations attempting to affect real social and economic change in post-conflict regions.
Since arriving in Africa, she remains committed to launching her unique blend of analysis, strategy and social entrepreneurship. Zedeck blends this analysis into practical methodologies to promote improved state and human security models through socially responsible investment and privatized micro-finance. She continues to assist the African Union / USAID redesign and assess Kenya’s first Sharia compliant micro-finance scheme to support pastoralist groups in the North East; a culturally Somalia province. Her focus on rural development also includes proprietary agro based business models like the Backpack Farm Program. Zedeck launched this commercial agro development program to capitalize small landholder farming groups to realize sustainable food security while enhancing economic capacity in Africa’s poorest farming communities. While rural sector development is a major priority, Zedeck also realizes the potential for enhancing the social equity in commercial agriculture production models. Consequently, in 2009 she led the incubation of the “AgraStalk Fund” to propel socially responsible food production models in the East Africa region by enhancing local value chains of core food crop production.
Ms. Zedeck is on the panel and fundraising Board of the Aid Workers Network (AWN) and participates actively with a variety of African based non-profit organizations including Heavenly Treasures, REFUGE and Heshima Kenya. Taking a special interest in helping combat the malnutrition of children, Zedeck has launched the Backpack Farm Foundation. The foundation’s only mission will be to construct school gardens to enhance the food sustainability and nutrition levels of Africa’s most vulnerable citizens.
She holds a Bachelors of Arts (International Relations) from George Mason University and a Master of Arts (International Security Studies) from the University of Bradford University in the United Kingdom. She has lectured at St. Andrews, Cambridge and United States International Universities as well a variety of online forums and commercial business groups. She regularly publishes commercial analysis on the development of small landholder production models as well as extension and equity services designed to service the micro-finance sector. She focuses her personal energies on publishing strategic analysis on Sudan on-going conflict and the of economic potential of the region while developing tailored analysis for organizations actively engaged or investing in Southern Sudan. Consequently, Medea Group has been recognized as a contributing partner to the Swiss Government’s think tank, the ISN.
“We have become so obsessed with the physical layer of security. In IR studies we learn about the aspect of ‘state’ security. And one of the major elements of that model is ‘human’ security. We seem to have forgotten that if people’s basic needs are addressed like food, water, shelter it does have an impact on the overarching security of the state especially when you consider the potential for spillover conflict when refugees go in search of basic necessities for survival. Not every refugee is the casualty of an armed conflict. Many of them are casualties of AFLC caused often times by drought.
But if we can baseline the needs of high risk communities, I think we can go a long way to stabilizing regional pockets of insecurity. This is definitely true if we could work in refugee camps where people have been encamped for more than 20 years with little or no ability to support with sustainable food security models. Look at Darfur. It represents more than $1billion USD / year in food aid. While the money is staggering, the populations living in those camps are at the whim of the international community who for the past two years is facing grain shortages in the EA / SSA region. This means, that even if they do raise the funds to supply Darfur, there isn’t enough grain to buy to feed Darfur. “ RZ
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What are the underlying values and principles in the Backpack Farm Agriculture Program? How and when do these clash with your client base?
The underlying values are that human beings have the fundamental human right to have food security. I find it morally unacceptable that in Kenya alone, 21% of its children are suffering from extreme malnutrition which means they are potentially suffering brain damage on a daily basis because they do not have enough food to eat. This rate is even higher in Uganda and parts of Sudan. Small holder farmers in Africa have the potential to not only end the region’s food crisis but also impact form the income generation and expansion of their technical capacity.
I don’t believe our goals clash with our client base at all but sometimes the implementation strategy isn’t in sync. Unfortunately, the aid mentality is something embedded here in Kenya and SSA. While rural farmers are eager for support with both access to technology and finance, they aren’t always eager to hear it isn’t a ‘freebie’ from another well meaning group of mazungus (whites). The can be reluctant to participate in a microfinance version of the scheme which requires them to pay back part of the investment. But I find that if you give away things to farmers, the scheme fails because they don’t see any potential loss or real value in the program. It is much more effective to make them a direct financial stakeholder motivating them to make a real commitment of time and labor.
John Deere really stands out for me as a partner! How did they come into this situation and what do they contribute and receive in return?
John Deere Water Technologies (JDWT) is not a contracted partner but a supplier. Plastro Technologies has been a supplier of drip irrigation technologies to my water partner in Kenya (Irrico International) for more than 10 years. Last Year JDWT bought them. I goggled the President’s name, the found him on LinkedIn and asked if I could email him directly. He responded within a few days and I then started a 6 month courtship for his Director, Jonathan Gilat to better understand this marketplace of rural landholder (small holder) farmers and their untapped potential. I knew the way to approach them was through potential business and revenue.
By October they were on board to support us as a brand and we worked with them to finalize the design of the drip irrigation we wanted. We have just received our first order of 100 units to package with the other agro inputs in the Backpack farm. In late November I visited their team in Israel so could start to streamline how we as teams will work together in the future.
Your program includes a 5 phases that hope to ensure that small-scale farmers can increase their harvests and improve their qualities of life. What are these and what metrics do you use to measure success?
Because I have a background working in the development sector, even implementing micro-finance schemes, we custom designed a vetting and registration process which is Phase I. This also includes household surveys (social market research) so we can produce more accurate data on small landholder farmer. The M&E process really follows the KISS model and is tied into the monitoring of their production. One of the key tools we added to give us more insight from the farmers’ perspective was the journals. Even if a farmer is illiterate they can draw pictures.
This helps to build the feedback we get from the field as well as build communication and capacity within a give group as this data is collated and used in larger meetings with the farming group as a whole. Of course commercial farms who want to implement the BPF program to set up an out-grower scheme aren’t required to implement this process. But we are advocating they use these tools, which are included in our farming manual. Even if they don’t fund a formal impact study, they will have the data they need to write a standard progress report.
What counties are you working in? Why?
Right now we are launching in Kenya. The project was actually incubated after working in South Sudan but the overheads made it impossible to keep an office open there. I chose this region because there are more than 80 million rural small holder farmers to target with our program combined with regional shortages of core food crops and child malnutrition. While there are huge centers of commercial farming in this region, 85% of Kenya’s commercial farms are owned by 15 investment groups. There is very little diversity and rural farmers seem like the perfect way to build new production schemes.
I hope with new financing this year we will open a new office with 5 acre training facility in Uganda, Ethiopia and last but not least South Sudan. Sudan will be last waiting to see what happens with the April elections and if they are delayed until November.
What came before the Backpack Farm Agriculture Program?
What came before us? There have been packages or kits of agriculture inputs produced before by NGOs but they never integrated a program which identified markets. They always focused on increased production. There really is no point doubling or tripling a rural farmer’s production if it is just going to rot. But most of these programs lacked the technical capacity to support the farmers effectively and they approached them with a very “aid” oriented mindset. These farmers are not charity cases nor are they innocent. They will just as easily take advantage of the situation if they are given the opportunity for “freebies.” We need to adjust the mindset that this is ‘business not aid.’
Are the seeds in the backpack genetically altered?
No one in the Backpack team works with or advocates the use of GM, nor do I want to. I am not necessarily an anti-GM campaigner. Right now rural farmers in Africa are only producing 10-15% of what the commercial models produce. GM promises yields that are 120% + commercial models so I would be thrilled raising their production 50-60%, if not match semi & commercial rates of production. So while GM promises to provide these huge production results, it doesn’t provide or build the capacity my target farmers. They have a lot to learn first. My gut also tells me that immediately defaulting to unproven and untested science isn’t the right answer especially after seeing the failure of the GM maize crops in South Africa last year and the new reports on the organ damage 3 varieties of Monsanto grain causes. Just not sure we know enough yet and would rather support propagation of new hybrid and indigenous seed varieties.
Please define “agricultural cooperative.”
There so many definitions for a cooperative. Here in Kenya there is a formal registration process. But I am also willing to work with informal groups of farmers, especially women who organize themselves and their shambas to produce together. The real goal of any cooperative, whether formal or informal is to produce and sell together into a wholesale market by justifying the expense of logistics. If 5-10 farmers grow together and combine their production to justify a 20 or 40 foot container of grain, a wholesaler is more likely to come and buy from them. More than just quantity, with training and new inputs, they raise the quality of their produce which also attracts a better market and buyer.
How does the Backpack Farm Agriculture Program provide security?
Security in what sense? By enhancing quality and quantity of production, the program enhances food security. Now a farmer who produces 50% more in a given crop has seed to replant, contribution to the market for wholesale and better quality (nutrition dense) food for his family.
Advances in agricultural capacity and use of new technology are critical risk factors in the sector. New production schemes provide new choices for producers; enhancing what is produced, where it is produced, and how it is produced. These changes in agriculture production represent one important opportunities and potential to enhance both livelihoods and food security in SSA.
“Planning must include a diversity of training and monitoring to ensure concepts of production and quality are institutionalized within agricultural developments programs.“ How is planning executed in the village?
Planning is executed through the assessment and mobilization phase. During assessment, it is determined if a community of farmers are ideal candidates to implement the program. Once the assessment is complete, training and mobilization begins. This also gives either my team or that from an independent implementer the opportunity to evaluate the farmers and determine if they should be replaced or not. There normally hundreds of potential candidates so there is a pool to go back to and work with the best possible group or team of farmers.
How do address discrimination against women?
We don’t call it discrimination here but gender equality or empowerment, one of the big ‘buzz’ here in African programs. IFPRI reports that the majority of farmers in Africa are women and has unequal access to non-agricultural work. Women rely primarily on agriculture to feed families and produce nominal income. The World Bank (2001) documented that ignoring gender inequalities comes at great cost to people’s well-being and countries’ abilities to grow sustainability and thereby reduce poverty. It is the poor and small landholder farmers least able to cope with market changes and new demands. In agriculture the majority of producers in this category are women. As such these women are all too often left out of the markets most able to increase income as they cannot compete in terms of cost and new product specs.
In commercializing agriculture in Africa there will be greater innovation and market opportunity, but this will also include difficult transition periods as rural production schemes are enhanced. As regional markets develop, they will favor producers with “more resources and the information, education, and capacity to cope with increasingly stringent market demands. As such shifts in technologies, markets, and inputs can increase the vulnerability of individuals who are resource poor, especially women who historically have unequal access to enabling services and opportunities because of “persistent cultural, social, and political biases.”
BPF is keen to take lessons learnt from past agriculture projects, especially with respect to gender by specifically targeting women’s groups and farming coops with pilot projects and gender specific training materials. As the BPF projects scale in size, we plan to work with organizations such as Kenya Women’s Finance Trust (KWFT) to administer project funds and enhance literacy initiatives to build capacity of women farmers to help them adapt to meet the needs of the agriculture marketplace.
Are you faced with war as a barrier in the locales you worked in presently?
Here in Kenya, I would like to work in more pastoralist communities helping them to diversify their livelihoods. A lot of them really suffered during the last droughts, losing most of their livestock meaning food security and potential income. But the pastoralist tribes tend to be in regions with cattle rustling and do post a physical threat when trying to assess the viability of a new project.
War or regional conflict is a huge barrier in South Sudan and border regions in Chad and Congo. I would love to work more extensively in this regions but it is just not stable enough for me and an agriculture team, the farmer or for the stabilization of the markets. I do hope we will begin some projects in South Sudan this year but are already limited by some recent outbreaks of tribal violence where hundreds have been killed. While tribal conflict is being blamed, I can’t help but feel that the upcoming elections are also an influence in the recent tensions.
Why is this a high risk initiative?
I don’t actually think the program itself is high risk. We have proven the technical model works. What is considered high risk is the potential commitment of the farmers we want to work with. This is one reason the program was defined to help mitigate this risk factor but it will always be there. I will never expect 100% of the farmers we help to vet and register or those signed up by a commercial farm to be participating in the programs 1 year later. But I do believe by utilizing a formal program and setting clear expectations in writing with farmers, you do help to eliminate some of the risks. I also believe strongly that by focusing on women farmers, we will see much higher success rates because African women are amazing. They stay committed and work hard.