Bringing the best out of Africa's small scale-farmers 

L-R Sunday Silungwe, Carl Jensen (Co-Founders: Good Nature Agro)

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Agriculture in Africa is dominated by small-scale farmers, and in Zambia where Good Nature Agro operates, hundreds of small-scale farmers are struggling to make a decent living from their farming activities due to limited access to training, innovation, inputs and markets. Good Nature Agro, a social enterprise has created a farmer-centric model that addresses the different challenges of small-scale farmers and most importantly, allows these farmers the opportunity to make more of a liveable wage. Founded in 2014 by three friends Kellan Hays, Carl Jensen and Sunday Silungwe, Good Nature Agro focuses on the production of legume seeds like soybeans, cowpeas, and groundnuts. They focus on growing these pulses because they are nutritious, drought tolerant and preserve the soil in which they are grown.

The DevDispatch chatted to Sunday Silungwe, Co-founder and Director of Marketing & Communications about this model, and how it  allows small scale legume farming in Zambia and Malawi to thrive through innovative training, quality seeds and other inputs and creating fair and equitable benefit-sharing markets for the farmers.

We provide private training to a group of 40 small scale farmers at a time. In each group, we elevate one farmer that is doing extremely well, accepted by the group and also able to learn from us and train others. This farmer is called a Private Extension Agent (PEA), and a PEA once enrolled by Good Nature will be paid a monthly stipend that ranges from $25-$35 in the first year. In the second and subsequent years, the stipend is based on the output of the group. So they actually earn 2% of the sales revenue from the group. So we have seen some PEAs moving from as low as $25 to as high as $900 depending on the crop, the season and how productive their farmer group has been. 

With the farmers armed with the right skills to grow and harvest good quality seeds, Good Nature Agro proceeds to provide them with input through an upfront flexible seed loan. The loan is paid back as a portion of the harvest brought in. A simple example is that a farmer gets a seed loan of 10kgs of cowpeas and harvests 500kgs. The farmer gives Good Nature Agro 25kgs as payback for the loan and keeps 475kgs of the harvest. Good Nature Agro takes its support further by creating access to markets. Using the example above, Good Nature Agro will buy back the 475kgs of the harvest if the produce is of good quality. This model therefore tackles three of the most pertinent needs of small-scale farmers which are skills building, access to inputs and access to markets.

As the conversation progressed, we learnt that the training is open to participants within selected jurisdictions. Other selection criteria require that participants have to be farmers operating in the selected jurisdiction for at least 3 years with access to a minimum of 3 hectares of land. Given the present bias in access to land across the continent, we talked about how Good Nature Agro ensures that participation is inclusive of women who traditionally do not have access to land.

One of the things we intentionally did was to have the participation of women at 50% or above. That was the intention from the onset. But as the program continued we realised we are not actually enrolling individuals in the family but we have ended up enrolling families. So it matters for gender ratio purposes to register the lead in the family so in this case it could be the mother or father. At the end of it, we do allow flexibility on who attends the training because they all go back to the same place and incorporate their training to a piece of land. We do a lot of tracking in terms of who actually does input into the piece of land and that is the beneficial owner at the end of the day. So far, we have registered about 42% women. We try as much to get a 50/50 representation and we encourage farmers to come as households.

Another interesting element of the training is that it is a localised extension and the PEA participates in a one month training session otherwise called the PEA College. The training covers subjects from finance, to technical agricultural practices to record keeping, organisational management and even goes as far as economics. Once they have completed the training, they go back into the community and support the group of 39 farmers.

In the beginning, the PEA starts to train in land preparation and then in the middle of the season they are teaching farmers crop management at the end of the season, they are giving training on post-harvest handling. The PEAs are allowed to also be a farmer but they also receive a stipend. They are monitored on a weekly basis by the field supervisors who are each in charge of 400 farmers and 10 PEAs (who are in charge of 40 farmers including themselves). We make sure there is a Quality Check (QC) on all the training and that they are being handled at the right time. We do this through the field supervisors and also through a technology based training, in partnership with a company called Smallholdr. Outside the first year, the PEA is actually paid based on the group’s output. This guarantees the group is in check which is based on what we call Group reciprocity trust. 

The farming groups are kept at 40 to ensure that they are in the same jurisdiction and live in a 5km radius from the PEA for easy access to information and support. The group of 40 is responsible for each other and if one farmer defaults the loss is shared. The farmers therefore encourage each other and are bound by group reciprocity. 
We learned that the access to market for the farmers is not automatic but based on a number of variables. Farmers must have attended all training and their production must meet the quantity that allows them to pay back their loans. Most importantly, the quality of the produce must meet the Good Nature Agro quality scale of A, B, C and D where A is very superior quality and requires a short processing time and C is low quality. D is rejected.

The umbrella company is Good Nature Agro and Good Nature Seeds is our product which we produce and sell. Our core model is to buy 100% of the produce because that is where our margins are derived. For the commodity, we give a few options to the farmers. They can keep some if they want or we can connect them to another market that wants to buy it. 

Zambia recorded its first case of the coronavirus in March 2020 and since then has had thousands of cases and an over 90% recovery rate. Nationwide school closures and restrictions on movement of people except essential service providers was instituted to curb the spread of the virus. Agricultural production is considered an essential service in Zambia therefore Good Nature Agro continued to operate through the pandemic but not without feeling the effects.

Our normal buying time increased by three folds. So at a particular point we are buying from about 10 farmers a day when in actual fact we could do 40. So that increased our purchasing calendar from a month+ to about 3 months. That also spilled over into our processing time. Secondly, we  are actually closing on our series A, but it was delayed in coming in. The requirements for due diligence. Thirdly, our trade abilities especially cross border have reduced because requirements for border crossings are becoming higher. At some point, Zambia was designated a high-risk country and that made trading harder than normal. We also have a few staff that are international that we would have loved for them to visit their families, some of them have gone now that there is a bit of a relaxation in terms of travel policies by certain countries. However, a 14-day quarantine on their return takes a lot of time away from work and slows down our operations. 

Despite these challenges, it is very evident that Good Nature Agro has been quick to recognise opportunities from the chaos and has adapted its operations to the current climate. Sunday shared with us that with almost 5000 farmers enrolled in the program in Zambia and 400 in Malawi, they incorporated COVID-19 compliant safety training and awareness raising and provided safety resources such as masks, washing stations and sanitisers. Factory workers have been put on shift work with a night and day shift to reduce the number of staff present at any given time and minimise spread. 

For our Series A, we had to come up with a virtual due diligence that allowed for those that would have travelled in, to see what we do and get as many questions answered. They actually got to see it virtually. The delay in purchasing has allowed us to ramp up quality control meaning we have more time to inspect all batches compared to if it all came in at once. The trade delays have also helped us to create partnerships with our traders at the borders. It is also allowing us to better understand the border processes. Most importantly, COVID-19 has allowed us to show up for our community and to be their mouthpiece and advocate for them through this pandemic.  

Speaking to Good Nature Agro, it is quite easy to see that this is a social venture that is set to change the way small scale farmers operate on the continent. Their vision for the agricultural sector is huge and they are not afraid to face any obstacles. Their adaptation to  COVID-19 provides many important lessons for social entrepreneurs operating in this time and we cannot wait to watch them turn the agricultural sector on its ears.

To get to know more about Good Nature Agro please visit their website  

Images by Good Nature Agro