Why are some Kenyan farmers abandoning the One Acre Fund?

Luke Bwanjida stands in front of his shop.
Luke Bwanjida stands in front of his shop.

This is the second of two articles on the One Acre Fund in Kenya. The first part shows how OAF farmers have benefited from the organization over the past few years. Read part one here.

Malava, Kenya – The One Acre Fund is frequently hailed in the U.S. as an innovative approach to improving the lot of smallholder African farmers.

Here in Kenya, where it’s been in operation since 2006, it has grown in staff, membership – and notoriety. While it appears to an outsider to be a well-performing organization, some farmers in western Kenya are skeptical of joining and others are leaving the program.

The program says it lost about ten percent of its members when it announced it would not offer maize in its package, at the end of 2012. Enrollment in Shimanyiru, located just outside of Kakamega, fell to 73 farmers from the 200 that expressed interest in enrolling for the season.

Luke Bwanjila is a pastor in the Malava area, just north of Kakamega. He and his wife own a small shop that sells small food items, soda and operates as an M-PESA hub. He joined ‘Acre Fund’ – as it is called by most farmers – for a year but then left over concerns of having little control over his farm.

Bwanjila was initially happy with the program. The loan provided by One Acre Fund to pay for farming inputs like seed and fertilizer were easier than paying all at once. The information learned through the meetings on how to farm his land properly were informative and eye-opening. He used to spread seed across his half acre maize plot without spacing the seed or using fertilizer.

His method brought in at most one bag. A year with help from the One Acre Fund led to twelve bags, but that was not good enough to stay. The rules about planting and harvest were too rigid for Bwanjila.

“Your crop is not yours until you harvest,” he said in reference to advice from One Acre Fund to not harvest until it is fully matured.

Malava landscape.
Malava landscape.

Some of the maize stalks are harvested earlier in the season to use for street-side roasters. The sale is necessary to provide a small level of income when farmers are struggling the most, the period just before a harvest. Bwanjila felt that he was being told not to harvest the crop early, something that One Acre Fund says it encourages, but does not tell farmers when they can and can’t harvest.

“Waiting until harvest is a threat to my family,” he said.

DSC_0031 (2)A maize disease that spread across western Kenya the past two years led One Acre Fund to recommend farmers abandon growing maize and opt for millet and sorghum (read how the farmers that stayed faired here). Farmers still retained the option to grow the maize separate from the program offering. For people who eat the maize-based ugali multiple times a day, the idea of not planting the crop borders on heresy.

“Where can I even go sell the crops?” asked one farmer. “Nobody here eats it. I use a little bit of millet for my children, but there is no place to sell it around here.”

Bwanjila also expressed his displeasure with the recommendations not to plant maize.

“We are used to ugali,” he said in refusing to accept eating other staples.

A reluctance to change and a lack of market for the alternative crops is keeping some farmers away from program. It’s well known in the region and just about everybody that is not participating has a strong opinion.

Furthermore, there are concerns with the fertilizer. While Bwanjila had dramatically improved yields for his crops, other farmers say they hear One Acre Fund members complain that the fertilizer does not work. For working people like Ruth Muteicho, the requirements of attending meetings is too burdensome.

A self-organize woman's group carry food and sing on their way to celebrate at a member's home
A self-organized woman’s group carry food and sing on their way to celebrate at a member’s home

Word of mouth can be powerful. Some farmers say they are staying away from the program because of the negative things they have heard from neighbors and the radio. The strength of such information, often based on assumptions and a lack of accurate information, has an impact on farmers potentially joining One Acre Fund.

“Why would I pay the Acre Fund when I can get the materials at the store?” Muteicho said.

Bwanjila is actually thankful what the One Acre Fund experts taught him. He liked it more than he didn’t, but didn’t like being told what to do. He is now spacing out his crops and using fertilizer on all parts of his farm.

Bwanjila is not alone. The methods from One Acre Fund are being employed, just outside of the organization. Former members and non-members are learning that improved farming methods can increase their yields.

“Because of (One Acre Fund) I can distinguish crops and plant them well,” he said. “Now I space everything!”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.