2010 Acumen Fund Fellow, Josephat Byaruhanga, conducting a training in the community with Western Seed Company
I had the opportunity to live with my grandmother in our rural home in Uganda before she died at the age of 102. I farmed bare handed with her and my parents. I experienced waking up early in the morning, going to the farm, planting or harvesting crops until the sun set.
I have vivid memories of walking long distances with them to the nearest market, carrying baskets of potatoes and other products for sale. As a farmer in the rural set up, my grandmother had her own ways of selecting, preserving and storing the best seeds for the next season’s crop. “If you want to overcome hunger and food insecurity, never eat up all the seed for the next season crop,” she told me. She relied on her farm-saved seed for the next cropping season, and by this, she demonstrated to me that today’s saved seed can be tomorrow’s best harvest.
Twenty years later in 2010, during the Acumen Fund Fellowship program, I found myself working with Western Seed Company (WSC) in Western Kenya. This company selects, cleans, produces, processes, stores, and sells quality seed to smallholder farmers located in hard-to-reach areas in Kenya. I found that WSC follows the same goal my grandmother used to live by — ensuring that there is quality seed for tomorrow’s harvest. However, WSC does not use farm-saved seed for the next season like my grandmother used to do; rather, it aims to bring technology to the farmer, delivering quality hybrid seed seasonally for the next cropping season.
During my work with WSC and farming communities in Kenya, I witnessed how difficult it is, still today, for smallholder farmers to access high quality seed for their next cropping season. I was able to see the joy of increased opportunity and economic advancement as a result of access to high quality maize seed. However, one encounter during my fieldwork in Kenya remains a reminder of the constant struggle faced by resource-poor farmers in accessing much-needed high quality seeds.
A rural Kenyan maize farmer. Photo from Western Seed Company.
As I traveled to some villages in the field while doing a baseline study, local people would often gather to listen to the questions that were being asked to the selected farmers (interviewees). To compensate for the time taken for participating in the interview, a farmer would be given at least three packets of hybrid maize seed, each packet weighing 250g. Those farmers who were randomly selected considered themselves fortunate; it was viewed as an opportunity to access the much-needed hybrid seeds at “no cost.” Those who were not selected became somewhat envious, because they missed the opportunity to receive the seeds.
Farmers of various ages would surround our vehicle with a hope of at least being offered one packet, but because we did not have enough, it was difficult for us to give to everyone who gathered around us. Western Seed Company only offers seed at a cost (or in these situations, as compensation), and not as a handout or for relief. Thus, it was unavoidable in these occurrences that selected farmers received seed while non-selected farmers had to watch.
At the end of one interview, we were handing over three, small packets to one of the interviewees, as one grain (and exactly one grain) of maize seed fell out of a small hole in one the packets. Among the group, there was this one disabled man seemingly in his late forties among the group (whose name and identity are unknown to me). He had been listening attentively to the conversations and interviews going on, hoping that he too would also be able to participate and benefit from the seeds. He asked us to be interviewed later, but he was not on our list. When this man’s hopes of being offered a small packet seemed to be unsuccessful, he bent down and picked up this one grain that had fallen out of the packet and placed it in his pocket. He performed the action so subtly as not to be noticed or seen by anyone, but quietly, I watched as he did it.
This action touched me. A stream of questions ran through my mind. Why did he choose to pick up this single grain of seed? I felt this man’s action spoke louder than volumes of words. As I reflected on the meaning of this action for the broader community and myself, I felt there could not have been a more striking way to express his need. Can a person, motivated to such action, truly have dignity in society? What choices and opportunities do people have, if their only option is to pick what has fallen from the tables of those who are lucky to have enough? How can one ensure that such a man gets adequate capacity to access the seed he needs at his own convenience? How many of us are looking for only one seed in our lives (it could be in form of an idea, a word of comfort, a single push, a little connection, a single pull, a single opportunity), just to spark the transformation we need, and yet see no opportunity to get it? I generated more questions than answers.
Meanwhile, this gentleman walked fast to his home. I asked one of the staff members from WSC to drive and follow him. We reached him as he was branching off the road towards the gate of his house. When the car stopped, I called to him and he got a little frightened, but I told him he did not need to worry. I then asked him what made him pick the one maize seed that had fallen on the ground.
“You see, I do not have money to buy the hybrid seeds and my hope was that you would give me at least one packet of seed, but this was in vain”, he answered. “So when I saw this one seed, I thought it was an opportunity for me to pick it up and try it on my garden. If I cannot get a packet, then let me do with the one seed,” he continued to say. “Yes, one seed will do. If it gives me two maize cobs, this will give me several seeds to plant the subsequent season. In this way, I will have enough seed after a few seasons”, he asserted.
A journey of a thousand miles to prosperity may begin with one seed. I saw great courage, hope and promise in this man.
I began to see his need differently than I had thought. Although he did not require it, I was moved to ask my colleagues that we give him three packets, for which he was thankful. For me, this man stands out as a symbol of great courage and determination, for he was prepared to begin his journey to prosperity with a single maize seed.
Josephat Byaruhanga is an Acumen Fund Fellow from Kampala, Uganda. He is part of the Fellows Class of 2010. He has experience managing rural community development programs and a Masters in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University. To learn more about Western Seed Company and the Direct Access System for reaching smallholder farmers, visit their website and read Josephat’s summary below.
About Western Seed Company & the Direct Access System (DAS):
Western Seed Company (WSC) is based in Kitale in Western Kenya and its mission is to bring technology to the smallholder farmer, increasing their yields through hybrid seed varieties. The company was incorporated in 1986 and has focused on hybrid seed production since 2003. WSC’s maize seed varieties have gained a considerable competitive advantage in Western Kenya, and the company itself is beginning to command a sizable market share.
My role as a Fellow with WSC was to spearhead, manage, and coordinate the company’s Direct Access Sales (DAS) project that ensures increased accessibility of our products to smallholder farmers by selling to them directly rather than through middlemen. I designed a logical framework for the project, developed an annual work plan, and set up annual performance targets for the project. We marketed and distributed over 1500 metric tons of hybrid maize seed to smallholder farmers in 8 districts of Western Kenya. As a result of this increased access, farmers’ yields have increased by over 50% in areas of operation.
I also facilitated training of smallholder farmers in subjects such as better agronomic practices, record keeping, business planning, and community leadership. I also facilitated the setting up of a mobile money initiative with WSC and MPESA to facilitate information-sharing and transactions between the company and farmers.
The 3-year Direct Access System (DAS) project tackles the complex problem of household food insecurity and income generation in impoverished rural villages of Western Kenya by increasing availability and accessibility of high quality maize seeds to the door steps of farmers in hard-to-reach villages.
The people in Western Kenya rely on smallholder subsistence agriculture; the population density is increasing while the arable land is shrinking rapidly. The DAS model hinges on the selection, recruitment and building of a well functioning network of village farmer agents. These agents organize and mobilize their fellow farmers for the purposes of purchasing hybrid seeds directly from the company, which get delivered to their localities.
During the time I spent working with WSC to establish, coordinate and manage the Direct Access System (DAS) project, I gained critical insight into how this model could be a useful tool for enhancing the delivery of high quality seed to rural households on a sustainable basis.