Innovation of the Week: Delivering Lasting Change with a Backpack

By Sheldon Yoder

Backpack Farm Agricultural Programs is trying to prove that investing in smallholder agriculture in east Africa is not only one of the most effective long-term means of addressing the recurring drought in the Horn of Africa but also profitable. As the name suggests, the organization’s tool of choice is a canvas backpack.

Backpack Farm couples a backpack full of ecologically-sound agro-tech with training on sustainable agriculture practices for farmers in East Africa. (Photo Credit: Bernard Pollack)

Founder Rachel Zedeck first had the idea for Backpack Farm when she got off a plane in South Sudan and saw women farmers carrying 90 kg bags of food aid. She thought that it would be more helpful if they were carrying a bag back home containing irrigation technology, drought-resistant seeds and training manuals that would enable them to become better farmers. Zedeck sold her house and moved to Kenya where she used her savings to launch the for-profit social venture. Backpack Farm currently operates in Kenya and South Sudan and has reached approximately 13,000 smallholders.

Each backpack supplied by the organization contains a soil testing bag, indigenous or drought resistant seed packs, biological crop protection and fertilizer inputs, a drip irrigation system, a filter, water tank, sprayer, training manual, and a crop journal. The backpacks are not small, but they come complete with the tools for dramatically improving crop yields for these farmers.

But Backpack Farm does not simply provide a kit of agricultural inputs. It operates primarily as a training program, stimulating entrepreneurship and teaching ecologically sound agricultural practices. The program works in five phases: assessment and mobilization, specifically supply chain management; training and production; production monitoring and market distribution strategies; risk management; and finally, expansion through reinvestment that ensures transparency, sustainability, and natural expansion within rural communities.

Backpack Farm has yet to receive money from international donors, instead relying on revenue generated through sales of the backpacks to farmers, as well as revenue that comes from its consulting arm. Unlike the profit-driven ethos of most businesses, Backpack Farm hopes to inspire competitors and enlarge its impact to other areas. In fact its training manual is offered free of charge to any organization doing similar work.

The organization’s seven franchises in Kenya, which serve as full-time training centers, provide more than 40 different skills-based agriculture and business classes for farmers. The classes are offered for a small fee and the hope is that the farmers will perceive the value of the inputs and training and will earn enough from increased yields to eventually buy the backpacks. Backpack Farm plans to have 20 franchises by the end of year and more to come as they expand beyond Kenya and South Sudan.

Highlighting the value of crops adapted to local conditions and training smallholder farmers in sound agro-ecological practices and entrepreneurship, Backpack Farm holds promise of making lasting change in East Africa.

Sheldon Yoder is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.

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