Mwea Ngurubani County, Kenya — Whether volunteering at local high schools in her community, educating boys about the importance of speaking out and building self-confidence or taking a summer course at Oklahoma State University in the United States as a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow – Kenyan social entrepreneur Joyce Kamande is passionate about supporting farmers and young people in rural areas. Her dreams are large; she wants to expand from converting agricultural waste into high-yield organic fertilisers to using it to produce biofuels, eco-furniture and much more. AllAfrica’s Nancy A. Onyango wanted to find out more about Kamande’s story and how her company, Safi Organics, is contributing to sustainable agriculture and food security by boosting the productivity of struggling farmers. She was able to visit Safi’s operations shortly before Kenya’s full lockdown for COVID-19.
This journey of founding Safi Organics started way back in 2015 during my final year in the university when I met with my co-founder Samuel Rigu. We both grew up in rural areas in Kenya, where farming was the core business of our families and community. We both had a keen interest in empowering our communities and providing solutions.My parents were peasant farmers. Getting us to school [which required paying school fees] or feeding our family was hectic, because they had to rely on the farm, and I would say there was no rain. The lands were degraded, making it difficult to harvest enough produce to feed my family or sell. There were days we would go without food.
From hungry farm girl to social entrepreneur
Farmers in my village continue to face this perennial challenge of declined yields. With Safi Organics, I am changing this narrative. The vision of Safi Organics is to be the leading converters of farm waste to high-quality carbon-negative fertiliser that increases farmers yields.
We first did research and trials in 2015 and 2016. After several tests to convert the agricultural biomass, we came up with an organic fertiliser named Safi Sarvi, which now retails at 1500 KSH ($15).
Access to capital is a common challenge for most entrepreneurs. Where did you get your capital to start your operations?
Most young entrepreneurs do not have access to capital to start their own business or their private social enterprise as they wish to. For us, our advantage was that we ventured into a place where the waste had not been tapped into.
Our factory is located in Mwea, Kirinyaga county, where there is a lot of pishori rice farming [a prized fragrant rice in the Basmati family]. We were able to access the raw material for free, because it was disposed of alongside the roads and piling up. In 2015, we got start-up funds from the Tony Elemelu Foundation, which helped us in the research and development stage.
Other than fertilisers, which other profitable products can be developed from agricultural farm waste?
With the available agricultural biomass waste, there are a lot of products that can be developed. We can produce briquettes, which is an environmentally friendly biofuel and will help stop the use of charcoal and save our trees. We can also produce biodiesel that can be used by factories and the transport industries.
Other products are mosquito coils, and furniture, as the rice biomass can make solid block boards. In homes, you can also use agricultural waste to filter water and as an air purifier specifically for the pit latrines. Lastly, you can use it to make animal feeds. Biomass can be mixed with other chicken waste to give better nutrients to animal feeds.
As a farmer myself, I know that organic fertilisers work slowly, unlike the synthetic imported fertilisers, which are speedy. How do you convince farmers not to use synthetic fertilisers, when they want to improve their farm yields quickly?
Organic farming is being adopted slowly in the market, and honestly, it has not been an easy journey to convince farmers to use organic products. Most small scale farmers across the African continent depend on expensive imported fertilisers which increases the soil acidity hence reducing the productivity of farms. What they don’t know is that they increase their yields from more robust, locally made carbon-negative organic fertiliser produced by farm waste from companies such as Safi Organics.
Safi Sarvi helps to promote soil health and nutrient retention and reduction of irrigation needs by 30%. We agree that our fertiliser has a slow release-rate of nutrients, which means that they don’t work instantly like other synthetic fertilisers. But in the long run, it contributes to over 30% increase in yields and a 50% increase in income for our farmers. So with increased income, a farmer can even farm larger fields, using the increased revenue that they got from increased yields.
In Kenya and other African countries, unreliable and sometimes nonexistent agricultural extension services lead to poor farming practices, which can result in turn to low yields for smallholder farmers in many parts of Africa. What does your extension services programme entail?
I couldn’t agree more. The fact is there is a lack of extension services for smallholder farmers in rural Kenya. That’s the main challenge. The farmer has no one they can trust to give them advice on how they should farm. Safi Organics has a training and capacity-building arm which offers training to our farmers.
We train farmers on sustainable agriculture every season. We offer training on alternative crops they can grow on their farms, such as soya beans and growing vegetables on sacks using the vertical gardening method. We also provide soil testing services. With the results of the soil ph, we recommend the kind of crops that they can farm that can stabilise the soil ph. Waste management is also covered, and we train them on how to produce environmentally friendly products and turn waste to gold.
How do you manage to maintain quality and quantity for your customers? Your fertiliser goes for Sh1500 ($15) and Sh3,200 (32).
Our products cost $15 in the market. The synthetic fertilisers in the market cost between 30 to 35 dollars, so that means our product is 40% cheaper or affordable, even in comparison with other organic products in the market. The main reason why we want to make our product available is because we have been able to decentralise our operations. The production of the fertiliser is in our village-based units, which use locally available resources and labour. We produce the fertiliser where the farmers can interact with us.
We also have a good description of how our fertiliser should be used on the sacks or on the bottles that we supply. Our agronomy team on the ground does close follow-up with the farmers on the ground to collect feedback and answer any questions. We assure our farmers that we are here together with them, and we are going to walk this journey of farming with them and make sure that it becomes a profitable venture to them.
You received a scaling up grant from USAID, USADF and Citi Foundation for Safi Organics. How did this come about?
Last year, I was selected as a Mandela Washington Fellow. The fellowship brings young African leaders to the United States for academic and leadership training and creates opportunities for Fellows and Americans to collaborate. This was a great achievement, as the fellowship received more than 38,000 applicants, and only 700 were granted the opportunity.
While in the USA, I was placed in Oklahoma State University. During that period, I attended classes and leadership programs. I interacted with Oklahoma entrepreneurs for practical know-how about how U.S.A businesses work, modern farming in the US context and how the youth in the US are adapting to agriculture.
Upon my return to Kenya, there was a call placed by USAID, USADF and Citi foundation. We applied for the grant as Safi Organics to offer capacity building to the youth on sustainable farming and launching demonstration farms for our farmers. We were one of the successful applicants and have been awarded $25,000 towards the project. With this new grant, our target is to reach over 3,000 farmers.
Your work is in line with permaculture – an agricultural philosophy that advocates for sustainability, using the resources that we have around us to their fullest potential.
Permaculture is a cool way of sustainable organic farming, and Safi Organics is already doing that. We are also ambassadors of utilising all the available resources around us to carry out agriculture In a sustainable way. This is something that the Safi Organics team upholds and trains its farmers to adopt, because we are advocates for sustainable ecosystems.
By using Safi Sarvi, farmers can grow and sustain their crops. Our fertilisers are from the earth and do not pollute the environment. Modern farming harms the planet as it contributes to the loss of biodiversity. With our approach, we are promoting profitable agriculture for rural small-scale farmers, while conserving long-term productivity and fertility of the land.
What is the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic on your business?
COVID-19 pandemic has affected every business. Farmers, too, are concerned, and they are unable to get their farm inputs, go to the farm or market.
The pandemic has also affected our business, as most of our customers who are farming for the export market have been affected. Most of them have suspended their operations due to the travel restrictions limiting the transport of cargo. As a result, we are not able to sell to them. For the small-scale farmers, we are still selling, but the volumes have dropped. The current lockdown has exacerbated the drop in sales volumes, and we are hopeful that a cure and vaccine will be found soon. If this situation persists, it will force us to close down our business. It will also affect other start-ups. This is because we will have no supply of farm inputs. We will be unable to pay our employees, as we rely on the sales of our fertilisers.
How have your sales been so far?
Our sales have been great so far. In 2019, we raised 10 million KSH ($100,000 , in 2018, we hit about 4 million KSH ($40,000), and in 2017 we raised 3.6 million KSH ($36,000). We are happy with the sales. People are now adapting to our products and know the benefits of using organic products. The farmers have been our ambassadors through word of mouth; they have been able to spread the word, and as a result, our products move well in the market.
What does the future hold for Safi Organics?
We have big dreams for Safi Organics. Our goal is to help small-scale farmers based in rural areas across Africa increase their soil fertility and improve their yields.
We want to expand to other counties in Kenya and create fertiliser plants. We have a target of ten new plants. Our focus is in Narok, Bungoma and Meru counties, as they have wheat and coffee waste. Outside Kenya, we are eyeing Tanzania, as they also have many rice farms which produce tonnes of waste.
Safi Organics comes in with a fertilizer that not only increases farmers’ yields, but also that has environmental benefits, as it actively sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, and curbs the farm waste disposal problem.
Rural farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa often pay 2-3 times the world price for their fertilizers, due to the fact that most fertilizers today are produced in large-scale, centralized, and capital-intensive facilities, and then shipped via long-distance transport to rural areas. Due to the farmers’ limited income, they can often only afford the cheapest, synthetic varieties that over the long term may actually acidify and degrade their soil due to over-dependence. As a result, some farmers have seen their post-harvest yields decrease by up to 50% in the last 20 years. This is a significant concern for local food security.
We use a combination of technology (developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and proprietary recipes to decentralize and downsize fertilizer production, such that it can be carried out profitably on a village-level scale using locally available resources and labor. Imagine small-scale, low-cost, mobile systems that can be latched onto the back of tractors or donkey carts, and be moved from farm to farm to enable localized conversion of agricultural residues into a fertilizer base under 2 hours, without needing external energy input. This base is then mixed with our recipes to complete the nutrient as standalone fertilizer application.
Our process drastically reduces the long-distance logistics needed to deliver high-quality fertilizers to farmers by producing the bulk locally. Our branded and carbon-negative product, Safi Sarvi, improves farmers’ harvest yield and income by up to 30% for the same cost that they pay for fertilizer inputs. The technology as well as the product have been proven, in the course of the past 8 years, both in the lab and in the field (data available upon request).
Our product has been officially certified by the Government of Kenya as a standalone fertilizer as of 2018. As of 2019, our production has reached the financial breakeven point.