Good Nature Agro is helping Africa’s small-scale farmers out of poverty by growing high-value legumes.
by Nikhil Sreekandan
Carl Jensen first came to Zambia in 2013, as part of his previous job, an engagement through which he met his future co-founder, Sunday Silungwe.
The duo initially focused on a project that looked at post-harvest losses and how design thinking could help the issue. But it became very clear very quickly that what they were looking at was a series of interconnected challenges: farmers being unable to store their crops contributed to volatile prices, farmers’ dependence on prices to help move them out of poverty, extremely low-levels of production and low yields.
They began looking at non-profits and for-profits who were engaging with small-scale farmers but found that most players working in the space were interested in addressing one aspect at a time. Understanding the importance of tackling all of the challenges together, Carl Jensen and Sunday Silungwe founded Good Nature Agro, a for-profit to help small-scale farmers out of poverty.
We talked to co-founder Carl Jensen to learn more about the organisation, its impact in Zambia, and much more.
INKLINE: Could you explain how the Good Nature Agro model works?
Carl Jensen: When we enter an area and engage with farmers, it is really about putting the solution out there and letting them come forward. The farmers apply to work with us in teams of 10, and those teams must trust each other because they will be taking out a group guaranteed loan. And, if one farmer doesn’t repay or he/she underperforms, the nine other farmers in the team are going to have to cover for that individual.
We then group four teams of 10, to form a production group, and that group will be producing one variety and one crop of seed. It is important to know that we do legume seed production, which means that the crop is going to be used by farmers next year for planting, not for consumption.
From every team of 10, we choose a potential lead, and from among these four nominated farmers we choose a private extension agent. This is similar to a lead farmer model, but what separates it is that our private extension agents are compensated by revenue share. So when these 40 farmers end up selling their crop to us, 2% of the revenue that we make when we sell the seed goes back to that individual. So these farmers can move very quickly from baseline of about a 100-115$ per hectare, to where some are earning several thousand dollars a year through their activity as a lead farmer.
I: Why produce only legumes?
C: Legumes are important from an agricultural perspective but when we arrived we saw that they did not have a permanent place in the farmer’s rotations. It’s important to have legumes as part of your crop rotation. If an entire farm is dedicated to corn or maize, plus a little bit of tobacco or cotton, the soil is not getting a break to regenerate and it also prevents the cycle of disease from year to year.
Plus, legumes fix nitrogen from the air by working with the bacteria in the soil, so they can help build the fertility of the land farmers are working on. Then, from a market perspective, legumes can provide a much higher market return per hectare than most cereal crops. However, it crucial for farmers to have a formal market to sell, someone who always has their best interest in mind and is consistently going to show up every year. With us as the market and having that market access as part of the model, it makes it worth it for farmers to transition part of their farm to legumes.
I: The training you provide to these farmers is a very important part of the model. Could you tell how you go about it?
C: We cover everything from financial literacy, agronomy and crop production to group management. It is a training of trainers model – we train the lead farmers for one month, and they then pass those on to all of the farmers over the year.
It starts with financial planning which is done during the off-season, prior to planting, and then we move into contract, selection of inputs, mapping out the farm, and deciding where the different crops are to be planted. Then it is land preparation, how to establish your crops, followed by weed control, pest disease identification, and control, and several other production training that occur during the year, culminating in harvesting and market at the appropriate time.
I: You talk about a backwards approach, as in you produce only what is needed in the market?
C: As a seed company, we are in a very unique and powerful position to better align with what large formal markets want and that means that we engage with peanut companies, for example, and we find out what exactly they want in terms of the characteristics of each of the legumes we sell. We then work with the breeders. We have a breeder as part of our staff who can make sure that those varieties that align with market needs are available and that they are well-adjusted to our localised growing conditions.
Then when we scale it up through our seed model and sell that seed to other smallholder farmers, it gives them access to the markets that we initially talked to. Because for the first time, they are producing what the market wants, and not the varieties that have been recycled since what their grandparents have been growing.
I: What is the impact you have had in Zambia so far?
C: We have helped about 5700 farmers this year, but the biggest impact number that we focus on is net income per hectare. The baseline average when farmers engage with us is about 110$ per hectare, and in 2019, our farmers averaged 440$.
Our focus right now is on engaging our seed customers. In 2019, we had about 112,000 customers, and we are now starting to engage with them in more or less the same way that we engage with our seed growers. We support them with training, in the same structure that we use with the seed growers, and we also link them with the market. Sometimes, that market is Good Nature Agro, and sometimes it is facilitated by us. Under this programme that we call Good Nature Source, any customers of our seed will have access to a guaranteed market and will receive training as well as a link to financing parties.
I: What advice do you have for someone who wants to start their social enterprise?
C: One of the best things we did was start extremely small. In the first year, we worked with just 40 farmers and that allowed us time to develop our training, our methodologies, to pivot quickly when we found pieces that were not working and without affecting a lot of people.
It also helped to get a much more intimate and accurate view of what the farmers wanted. So, I think that anyone who has an idea and is looking to start an enterprise should certainly keep their aggressive scale-up goals but first has to run it with very limited resources to get your proof points and to work out any initial challenges you will face.
Nikhil Sreekandan is a journalist with a desire to explore life through the stories he chases. An engineer who found recluse in the world of words, he is a journalism post-graduate from Cardiff University. He works as a content editor at Nature inFocus, India’s leading platform for nature and wildlife. When not lost in cinema, contemporary literature or his earphones — there is a genuine attempt at ‘giving chase’, and it is beautiful.