Smallholder Farmers as Agents of Change: Adapting Technology to Reach the Last Mile
Peg Willingham
February 24, 2017

I recently had the privilege of getting a first-hand look at one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s innovative partnerships to promote better livelihoods for smallholder farmers in rural Kenya. As part of a delegation focused on different aspects of the agricultural value chain, I visited two Rockefeller-funded “YieldWise” horticulture projects in Makueni County to learn how the program benefits farmers by increasing agricultural productivity and reducing post-harvest losses. My fellow visitors included representatives of companies that produce agricultural equipment being piloted as part of YieldWise, eager to see how their equipment is being put into practice. Another partner in this effort is TechnoServe Kenya, whose motto is “business solutions to poverty,” an ideal that we saw in action during our visit. YieldWise demonstrates the importance of public-private partnerships, uniting philanthropy, technical assistance, and private sector equipment and expertise to create sustainable, market-driven agricultural programs. All of us were impressed and inspired not only by the overall program design, but by the dedication of the farmers who are eagerly embracing new technologies to improve their livelihoods—and their own and their families’ lives.

Our first stop was a five-acre farm where several innovations are being piloted by an enterprising and charismatic “lead farmer” to improve his productivity and income. As an early adopter of new technologies like solar panels, rainwater barrels and Rockefeller-funded cooling containers, John sets an example for neighboring farmers who are likely to replicate his model over time. Using the electricity provided by small solar panels attached to a shed, he was able to power a low-tech but effective Tyvek container that provides cool air and moisture to prolong the shelf life of the mangoes and oranges that he grows. John was a generous host (his fruit was delicious!) and an excellent ambassador for YieldWise, which is enabling him to take his produce to market for a longer span of time, improving his odds of success.

Our next stop was a farm which benefits from a larger cooling facility—a shared resource that helps citrus and mango farmers reduce post-harvest losses, but also helps neighboring farmers as well, who rely on this facility as a shared resource. The companies whose refrigeration equipment and storage bags are part of this project were pleased to see how their products are making a difference. The visit left me impressed by all of the actors along the value chain, in particular by the ingenuity of the farmers, who face numerous challenges and yet are eager to embrace new technologies.

This experience was especially meaningful for me because I work for a non-profit agricultural research network that got its start almost 50 years ago because of the Rockefeller Foundation’s visionary investment in what was then known as the Green Revolution. That wave of technologies aimed at improving farmers’ productivity and incomes has made a significant difference in Asia and Latin America, but did not originally target Africa. Today the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, with support from Rockefeller and other donors, is helping to bridge that gap and accelerate access to the latest inputs, tools and know-how.  Climate change and population growth add urgency—farmers need crops that are not only higher-yielding, but resistant to pests, diseases, drought and heat. Reducing post-harvest losses with YieldWise and other approaches is improving food security and nutrition. Rural families are also benefiting from new varieties of staple food crops naturally enriched with the vitamins and minerals their children need for better health—a process known as biofortification.

Thanks to Rockefeller and its partners, the “last mile” is also the cutting edge—where new technologies are welcomed by farmers who see their potential.

*Photo Credit: TechnoServe

**The author is Head of Advocacy and Policy at HarvestPlus

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