Zipporah Biketi, a smallholder farmer in western Kenya, couldn’t believe her eyes: 20 bags of maize, each weighing 90 kilos or so, piled up from dirt floor to thatched roof in her little mud-and-sticks house. It was a yield 10 times greater than the previous season. She called it her “miracle harvest.”
It was an amazing reversal of fortunes. When I first met Zipporah in January 2011, her family was deep into the hunger season, a time of profound deprivation between harvests. She was rationing food for her husband and four children; meals were shrinking from three a day, to two, to one. Some days they had nothing for nourishment beyond a cup of tea or weak porridge. Zipporah explained that with little money and no access to credit in 2010, she could only scrounge enough seeds to plant one quarter of the acre of farmland beside her house. Her harvest was a mere two bags, which barely lasted three months.
Desperate to improve her farming, Zipporah joined a social enterprise called One Acre Fund. She had seen how some of her neighbors doubled or tripled their harvests with One Acre’s “market bundle” of seeds, soil nutrients, training and micro-financing to pay for it all. Now she was able to obtain the inputs to plant her entire acre. She diligently tended her maize and marveled at how tall and strong it grew throughout the season.
The harvest that followed was proof of the potential of Africa’s smallholder farmers when they have access to the essential elements of farming. For decades, though, the international development community and the private sector considered these farmers to be too poor, too remote and too insignificant to be worthy of their efforts. If these smallholder farmers — working no more than a couple of acres to feed their families — were poor, it was because they were, well, smallholder farmers. The prevalent development thinking was that they should move to more urban areas and find work there to support their families.