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Backpack Farms helps small African farmers defeat drought

Backpack Farms supports African farmers with low-cost products and training suited to their needs.

By Rachel SignerDowser.org / August 19, 2011

Okume Ochubo slashes down maize (corn) stalks in her tiny farm plot in southern Ethiopia. Corn was introduced by Europeans but takes a toll on the soil.

AFP Photo/Aaron Mascho/File

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This is part of a series highlighting innovations and possibilities for action for the famine in Somalia. Most news frames the famine and political conflict as nearly unsolvable; we're examining the on-the-ground measures that can help – from the large scale and political to the local and preventative.

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Looking at graphic photos of starving Somalis or reading about the perils of drought in East Africa, one might conclude that there is not enough food grown there, or not enough capacity to produce food. But many who work on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa would argue that the problem of food security in that region is historically tied to poorly planned colonial agricultural systems, as well as misdirected aid programs in the 1980s and 1990s.

One social entrepreneur, Rachel Zedeck, built on years of experience in international development work to create a program that addresses agricultural underdevelopment at the bottom of the pyramid. Her organization, Backpack Farm, supports farmers’ growth through innovative products and low-cost trainings that foster entrepreneurship and educate farmers about sustainable production techniques.

Dowser: How did you come to found this organization?
Ms. Zedeck: I’m passionate about food security. Drought happens every year in this region. Every year there’s a famine. Every year there’s economic loss. This year is particularly bad but it’s not new. I started this project in south Sudan. It’s like Somalia is a poster child for the aid world now. We created our program with a fraction of the money being pledged in aid. The real problems are systemic and that’s where solutions need to emerge. We have food surplus in Nakuru, an area [that is a] four-hour drive from the drought area, and we can’t get there because of the roads. This is a systemic problem.

We have to start addressing drought with a system program for change – you cannot put a Band-Aid on drought, it won’t work. We have water – there’s an abundant amount of rain during the rainy season – but we don’t collect it. We act like drought is a shocking occurrence. All of the countries we see in conflict now are on the list of top 23 food-importing countries. At some point, there is a correlation between food security and human conflict.

What are the core elements of Backpack Farms?
We are providing farmers with access to packages of green agro-tech [backpacks – hence the name of the organization] and training. That is our primary mission. We don’t give the classes away for free – they are about a dollar for a full day of extensive training on bed-raising, composting, water management, and so on. We do give away manuals with designs for better farming techniques.

Also, we are launching our KUZA doctor program, which is providing information about managing crops through mobile phones in a cost-effective way. It’s a great tool, in collaboration with Mercy Corps, that uses SMS [text messages] to provide information to smallholder farms in English and Swahili. And we are collaborating with Scientific Animators Without Borders to produce short training films.

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