On February 10th and 11th, 2014, Village Enterprise hosted a workshop in Kampala entitled Five Acres or Less: Agricultural Planning for Small-Scale Farmers in East Africa. This event, which brought together agricultural production specialists, domestic and international NGOs, academics, and private-sector agricultural businesses, was a milestone for Village Enterprise. While by no means unknown in the development world, Five Acres or Less was the first high-profile event we’ve hosted in the field and it served as our formal debut to the wider development community in East Africa.
For two exciting days we hosted over 60 agricultural professionals from organizations such as USAID, Makerere University, IPA, Simlow Seed Company, and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute at the Fairway Hotel as they discussed and debated the nuances of the various factors limiting the productivity of rural farmers. The goal of the workshop was to debut the S.M.A.R.T. to a diverse group of agricultural experts; improve the data foundations upon which its recommendations are built; and to provide an open forum for discussion about the relative merits of ‘best-practice’ vs. traditional agricultural techniques in the pursuit of better crop yields for the rural poor.
The format of the workshop itself was as stimulating as the topics that were on the agenda. Village Enterprise staff have attended many conferences and workshops in East Africa, and they largely follow the same configuration—presentation after presentation after presentation. For the structure of Five Acres or Less we decided we wanted to take a more innovative approach—one that blended the formal presentation of burgeoning research and theory on the current status of micro-farming with focused, intensive work groups, each examining a specific sub-group of crops, which were tasked with finding consensus on the appropriate combination of agricultural inputs, land management techniques, and risk mitigation strategies to ideally suit the Kenyan and Uganda micro-climates. Each group debated these topics through the lens of the S.M.A.R.T., which was updated in real-time as they made headway on their respective crops. Finally, to cap off the workshop, each group presented the impact of their research on the S.M.A.R.T. outputs for their crop group to the wider workshop, demonstrating the tangible value of accurate information at the decision-making stage for rural farmers.
Perhaps the most unique quality of the Five Acres or Less workshop, however, was the central focus of the rural farmer. Many conferences and workshops have been held on agricultural development in international cities such as Washington, London, Paris and countless others, but very few have actually seen those rural farmers directly represented—let alone spotlighted—for their practical expertise and knowledge of the problems being tackled.
Village Enterprise was deliberate in putting those people at the center of the conversation. We were honored to have in attendance seven farmers from the Village Enterprise program, screened and selected for their expertise, to ensure we had at least one “Good Farmer” with practical experience at each crop table. It was supremely rewarding to watch Village Enterprise-affiliated farmers—most of whom actually graduated from our program—not just go to toe-to-toe with PhDs and Deans from prestigious research organizations and schools of agriculture about the right balance of fertilizers, but to win the argument!
Two days is a long time to sustain the interest of such a diverse assemblage of experts, let alone keep it productive. However, having sat through the light-hearted, and at time hilarious, atmosphere of the final presentations and sifted through the comment cards days later I was convinced we had overcome that challenge. “It is innovative and rare to see the Dean of the University of Nairobi School of Agriculture and a Village Enterprise farmer at the same table…discussing how to improve agricultural practices,” commented one attendee. “The skills I gained will make my home people benefit from my experience, Thank you!” and “I can’t believe we have not done this before! Thank you Village Enterprise for your work and effort in developing the S.M.A.R.T.!” gushed others.
The effusive praise and the positive impact this workshop will have on the lives of rural farmers in our program completely validate the painstaking hours of preparation and numerous fires that had to be extinguished along the way. It was also inspiring to watch the Village Enterprise team come together and work so hard, efficiently, and effectively to make sure the event went off without a hitch. It is hard to conceive of a way in which Five Acres or Less could have been more of a success, which already has us brainstorming ideas for our next workshop. One thing is for certain, though—this achievement would not have been possible without the individual input of every member of the Village Enterprise staff from here to San Carlos and for that I am supremely gratified.