Rachel Zedeck (Changent/Eco-Farmer)

Rachel ZedeckI first arrived in Kenya in 2007 while in transit to Southern Sudan.

Before Africa, I had been working on other missions including Kosovo, Jordan and Iraq. While I had worked in the humanitarian sector, I had also been employed by commercial firms.

I was finally ready to make a different so why not go to Africa, the Dark Continent!  And of all places, I wanted to work in Sudan.

I was never one to choose anything less than the biggest challenge.

I had come to Sudan to do research to supply my published analysis but also wanted to launch the Suganic project (www.Suganic.com). This project was going to build communal farms in Southern Sudan to support the resettlement of refugees and displaced people.  
Within a year and half, I was emotionally raw and physically exhausted. During the first 6 months, my personal battle with African development models, UN agencies, defunct and ineffective NGOs, shysters and an endless list of other unsavory people had already taken its toll.

Even with more than seven years of field experience, I was ready to quit and crawl home.  Instead of quitting, I took a holiday, walked on the beach with my dog Moise (French for Moses) and got back on the plane to Nairobi.

I was simply being too ambitious. I needed to spend more time learning about the real reasons behind the food crisis in Sub Saharan Africa, design more practical models to build a reputation and simply learn to take baby steps.  A good friend told me that NOTHING in Africa ever comes too easily and if it does, beware of doom. I love tribal wisdom!

In April 2009, I finally secured what I call my ‘wonder’ team of agriculture experts. Together we have launched the Backpack Farm (Agriculture) Program (www.Backpackfarm.com). The program enhances bottom pyramid value chains targeting small landholder farmers’ production models by providing them a simple canvas backpack filled with cutting edge agricultural inputs, assessment, training, and monitoring and market development.

To counter the weak production rates of these farmers, our partner Lachlan Kenya designed the “fusion farming” model, a combination of biological products, botanicals and reduced toxicity pesticides. The fusion system is complemented by a custom designed drip irrigation system.

At first we built own drip kits with the assistance of CEO Bilu Vadera from Irrico International, our ‘water’ partner. Not only is he a brilliant, water engineer but also a kind and generous soul and native Kenyan truly committed to helping African feed Africa.  Slowly we developed a new relationship with John Deere Water. I actually wrote the President on LinkedIn and asked to talk to him.

What was the worst he could say to me, NO??? We now supply their kits. The link to their brand is exciting but we believe we are now marketing the most cost effective, high quality drip irrigation product in the marketplace specifically targeting small landholder farmers. It may seem like a small victory but Africa teaches you to relish any positive step forward.  And when you think about the constant water crisis here in the East Africa region, we are also having a direct impact on the conservancy of water resources.
 So.... by eliminating the need for traditional fertilizers (which damage soil and water tables), and distributing a cost effective drip irrigation system and training on green water management (rainwater collection) techniques, we think the Backpack farm model could actually shift the entire mindset of how to develop rural economies and make a positive impact Africa’s food security by empowering rural farmers with access to markets.

I know it doesn't seem like such a big deal but we developed an all-in-one package that should costs more than $5,000 and costs less than  1/15.
Now comes the fun part.. Show me the money! Increasing access to technology, training and wholesale markets costs money, meaning access to commercial finance. I actually get goose bumps when I write about it. Unfortunately, as a commercial initiative targeting rural sector development, we are perceived as a cutting edge concept and considered not only high risk but unproven no matter how many studies we have to back up our technology and program goals.

If I was an NGO, I would probably have already received a million dollars by now. It is actually ridiculous but c'est la vie.. We are now preparing to plant our pilot scheme in Kilifi Kenya no later than December this year. We will be planting a 1/4 acre training plot on a local conservancy and working with a local women's CBO (Community Based Organization).

I just came back and am really excited about the scheme. Once it is planted, we will be able to prove our technology and the ability of rural farmers to produce at a semi-commercial production level or what is called BPO (Backend Production of Outputs).
Ideally I would like to build hundreds of commercial farming co-ops leveraging commercial and private equity investment as well as those blended with donor funding. In June, the World Bank Group just announced a new program and think Bill Gates is on the band wagon to support small landholders but there seems to be a new program popping up every day.

I rarely understand them or we are not eligible to work with them because we are commercial. But that's ok. I am grateful we are still small; we haven’t forgotten the real mission at hand, which is a simple one. Africa needs to be growing more food and not for export to the Middle East.
I try to remind myself of all the great thinkers who have been told they were wrong. For the first 2 years, I was told this program would never work and was crazy. People don't tell me I am crazy anymore. I know, believe and fight for the Backpack Farm because it represents a realistic model of food production that will result in sustainable food and economic security for both rural famers and the East African community.

I need to mobilize less than 300,000 of the 100 million farmers in East Africa to end the food crisis. I am just not interested in building a program to burn through 2 years of donor funding providing little or no sustainable impact.  I want to change the world!   Solutions like the Backpack Farm Initiative can't wait any longer and I believe now is the time for myself and other social entrepreneurs to step up and take action!
Of course the Backpack Farm is not the only thing I am doing but it is my child.  I am still publishing analysis on Sudan and am now publishing a lot on the need for the commercial world to incubate projects in rural Africa whether in agriculture or other sectors.

I still need to pay my bills so I do assessments for various organizations and volunteer with other groups to help them design their fundraising strategy. I am a sucker for any group who has direct and sustainable impact on the lives of women and children, those most affected by poverty and conflict.

Related links:
Rachel Zedeck on Changents