6.2.2015 | printed in the Spring 2015 issue of VITAL magazine
In June of 2012, POET Founder Jeff Broin and his family were on a mission trip in Kenya, helping to build a school for deaf children.
The entire time he was there, though, Broin couldn’t stop studying the Kenyan corn.
“I saw all this corn that was three feet tall with no ears on it,” says Broin, who grew up planting and harvesting crops on his family’s farm in Minnesota. “It was the worst looking corn I’d seen in my life.”
When Broin talked to a local farmer, the man explained that the region was in the middle of a drought. “There will be a famine,” the farmer’s wife told him.
Nearly 75 percent of Kenya’s population relies on farming for their livelihood. With 45 percent of Kenyans living below the national poverty line, the country’s frequent droughts can be devastating.
“We drove past thousands of acres and I thought, ‘How is it possible this crop looks this bad?’” says Broin. “In the U.S., we have drought and we get lower yields, but we don’t get a total crop loss.”
For the remainder of the ten-day-long mission trip, Broin spent his free time talking to farmers, studying soil and researching local farming practices.
When he returned to South Dakota, Broin couldn’t stop thinking about that corn crop, 8,500 miles away in the town of Tawa, Kenya. He knew that POET could make a difference.
Broin gave a report to the POET board, made some calls to DuPont to ask about supplying seed and reached out to Farm Input Promotions Africa (FIPS), a Kenya-based non-profit that works with local farmers to increase yields through improved crop varieties and better crop and soil management practices.
In September of 2013, the POET Foundation created Mission Greenfield, a project designed to improve agricultural yields in Africa by helping to fund dozens of Village Based Advisors (VBAs) around the Tawa region in Kenya.
These VBAs are area farmers (half of whom are women, who make up 80 percent of Kenyan farmers) who work with Mission Greenfield (through FIPS) to learn effective agricultural practices, which they can then pass along to other farmers in their region.
In less than two years, Mission Greenfield’s target area has seen a significant increase in crop yields. The same fields that produced one bag of corn per quarter acre just a year ago are producing up to five bags this season. The number of malnourished households in this region has been reduced by 25 percent.
The statistics, while impressive, don’t tell the human side of the story.
Paul Seward has spent the past two decades working to improve agricultural development in Kenya and Tanzania. As the Managing Director at FIPS, he serves as the in-Kenya contact for Mission Greenfield. And he sees the real-life results of those numbers.
“The changes and improvements we are talking about are having a real impact on people’s lives,” says Seward, who has spent much of his career empowering small-scale farmers to become food secure. “All you have to do is see some of the children here who have gone from eating two meals a day to three meals a day. Suddenly they look well-fed and well-nourished. That’s the kind of difference we can make.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, that difference can sometimes be as basic as helping farmers to vaccinate their livestock. In the Tawa region, chickens were dying from Newcastle Disease and Mission Greenfield was able to help farmers get access to the vaccine. For many farmers, that meant their chicken population increased from an average of three chickens last year to as many as 30 this year. That means ten times as many eggs. That means extra chickens to sell for things like school fees, medicine and clothing.
That, coupled with those extra crop yields – with increases up to five fold – can mean the difference between sustenance farming and farming that allows families to not just survive, but thrive.
“It’s like teaching a man to fish – it changes their whole economic system,” says Broin. “Previously, many of these farmers grew and raised about half as much as they needed to feed their family. Now, when they get three to five times the previous yield, they can feed their family and they have extra to sell. They can afford to buy seed and fertilizer, buy lumber to build on to their house so their kids have a decent place to sleep, put clothes on their kids and pay for their schooling. That money jumpstarts the entire economy.”
With 60 VBAs each working with 200 farmers, Mission Greenfield is impacting 12,000 farms – an estimated 72,000 people. It’s an impact that comes primarily through technology, donations and education.
“We can help each farm for a year for the price of a meal at McDonald’s,” says Broin. “That’s just the beginning. We are also helping farmers get seedlings for fruit trees so they can have fruit. We’re working with edible beans and cassava [an edible root]. We’re sharing technology that these farmers can use forever.”
Mission Greenfield helps supply small seed packs, which allows farmers to experiment with improved crop varieties on their own farms. When research revealed that deeper tillage could increase yields, advisors encouraged farmers to use a hoe-like tool called a spring jembe, which breaks through the hardpan layer of soil and allows more rainwater to penetrate the soil.
Kenyan farmer Ruth Muli took advantage of both a new seed variety and the deeper tillage created by the spring jembe. “I expect to harvest five bags of maize, which will be enough to feed my family for a year,” she says. Photos provided by FIPS show Muli surrounded by green, eight-foot-high corn stalks ripe with ears.
Muthei Maweu, a farmer in the village of Kithiku, experienced good yield with one of the small seed packs last season and used that variety with deep tillage this season. “I purchased [the P2859W maize variety] because it performed well when I planted the promotional pack last season,” she says. “I planted the seed late but I will still harvest a good crop.” In previous years, with local seeds and old techniques, Maweu harvested roughly 400 pounds of corn. This year, she expects to harvest more than 1,000 pounds.
For Seward, those are the kind of first-person stories that represent the progress that can change a family, a village, a country and eventually the world.
“We are making terrific progress, progress that can be spread across the region,” says Seward. “What we are showing is that with a bit of commitment, care and compassion, we are building the capacity of local people and encouraging people to share. We realize we don’t have the people to reach out to all of Africa. However, if we teach these farmers how to employ the technology, they’ll share it with others, and the knowledge and the results will spread. The POET Foundation is providing the funds, technology and expertise to help make this happen.”
For POET, those real-life results are the reason they have committed to continuing – and expanding – Mission Greenfield.
Over the next year, Mission Greenfield’s goals include reaching another 5,000 farmers, distributing another 100,000 small seed packets of new varieties, vaccinating 160,000 chickens, creating 800 trial plots and 60 tree nurseries and stocking six tons of seeds. That 25 percent decrease in malnourished households within this region could, at this pace, climb as high as an 80 percent decrease in malnourished households within four years, according to Broin.
“At POET, we have a long history of philanthropic projects in the United States,” he says. “But one of the things I learned in Kenya is that we can make a global difference. Mission Greenfield can permanently change lives of people in Kenya, and hopefully around the world over time. This is a mission that fits perfectly with the POET Foundation.”
For Broin, it is those personal connections that represent the bigger picture – the human connections that can change the world, one friend, one farmer at a time. What started as a family-focused mission trip – a trip that Broin says he was talked into by his wife Tammie – turned into a POET Foundation project. All because Broin couldn’t stop studying that questionable Kenyan corn.
“What we are doing here is what we are meant to do,” says Broin. “We are using what God gave us – the sun, the soil and the seed – to create wealth from the earth. You can see that in the people we help – intelligent, loving people who can teach us something about appreciating life. You can see how quickly this wealth could spread, as these farmers learn this new technology and carry this message around Kenya and the region. It just starts with helping one farmer, and we can change the whole world.”
The Sun the Soil & the Seed
by Steve Lange