New farming “Ecosystem” in Uganda empowers women smallholders

Photo: GAFSP

Crops have been plentiful in recent months for Doreen Nansasi, a 33-year-old smallholder who plants beans and maize on her small family farm in the village of Kito in central Uganda. The relative bounty has allowed her to invest in her farm, pay school fees for her children and even put money aside in her local village savings group—a first, she admits.

As Nansasi sees it, this spell of good luck has just one explanation: Earlier this year, Grainpulse, a Kampala-based agribusiness company, visited her fields to provide training on planting techniques, including best practices for applying the company’s locally-blended fertilizer.

The results have been dramatic. In just one planting season, Nansasi’s maize and bean production have both increased by more than 60 percent and though she’s farming on less land, her income has increased dramatically. “Ever since we started using the fertilizer, we are seeing a big change,” she said recently. “I used to think that fertilizer was a luxury. Now, with trainings, I know to save my money on renting more land— and instead use it to buy inputs that increase production on land that I already have.”

IFC, with support from the Private Sector Window of GAFSP, has committed $11 million in loans to Grainpulse to support the company’s expansion and strengthen its farmer supply chain. The investment, alongside advisory services—also supported by GAFSP—is expected to boost the company’s reach to an estimated 200,000 smallholders like Nansasi by 2023, up from approximately 20,000—increasing food production and economic growth throughout Uganda. It’s also helping Grainpulse expand to become a “one stop- shop” for farmers, providing them with multiple services, including fertilizer blending, that is optimized to popular local crops like those on Nansasi’s farm.

Fertilizer use in Uganda is low, about 9.6 kilograms per hectare annually. This is significantly lower than the 16.2 kilograms per hectare average across sub-Saharan Africa, and the 140 kilograms per hectare average globally.

To introduce it to farmers, Grainpulse works closely with smallholders leveraging a digital extension platform throughout the planting cycle—and has intensified its outreach to women farmers like Nanansi to ensure the company’s long-term growth. “Reaching women farmers and empowering them isn’t a side project—it’s core to our business strategy,” said Grainpulse CEO Alta Theron. “Creating a sustainable supply chain is critical to growing our business and customer base.”

As part of the company efforts, they’ve employed a team of female village agents— about 40 percent of their total outreach staff— whose role is to reach out to women farmers in their communities. The training they provide is flexible to accommodate the household work that many women farmers are also tasked with. Grainpulse has trained 1,200 farmers so far— about 45 percent of them women— and has covered agricultural best practices, as well as financial literacy. Jalia Nakawuka, a female extension agent who joined the company this year, says that her training— which focuses on land preparation, proper planting techniques, weeding, pest management, and harvesting— also includes financial literacy, highlighting the importance of profit, rather than just revenue. “I train farmers to focus on cultivating a small piece land with high yields, rather than having a lot of acreage with less output,” she said.

In addition to Grainpulse’s fertilizer-blending factory—the first in Uganda—the company also buys crops such as coffee, maize, sorghum, barley and pulses directly from farmers, helping connect them to markets and exporters, while also reducing their postharvest losses.

Grainpulse’s mill currently produces maize flour to make breads and other staples; the IFC-supported expansion will enable Grainpulse to process maize into animal feed as well.

“Agriculture in Uganda is almost entirely based on smallholders and so empowering them is critical to our supply chain sustainability,” said Hannington Karuhanga, Grainpulse Executive Chairman and Founder. “For us to be successful, we need to create an ecosystem by working closely with farmers, providing last-mile solutions and reducing middlemen.”

Grainpulse, formerly known as Savannah Commodities, became a joint venture with K+S AG, a global potash and salt company headquartered in Germany, in September 2018.

Agriculture employs an estimated 70 percent of the country’s labor force and accounts for about a quarter of its GDP. But Ugandan smallholders are particularly vulnerable: Rainfall is unpredictable and dry spells can be disastrous for farmers without irrigation systems. The recent swarm of locusts has also decimated many crops, while COVID-19 restricted movement even in rural areas. The result is that many farmers had a harder time getting to stores to purchase inputs or recruit additional workers to assist during planting season.

Halima Nanjego, who farms cassava, sweet potatoes and maize on her half-acre farm, says life has been transformed since Grainpulse taught her streamlined planting techniques. “I have only a small area of land, but I can produce so much more,” she says. “And I can use the extra money to invest in my small shop and improve my family’s well-being.”

Last year, the company’s mobile farmer training center—a retrofitted Mercedes truck equipped with lab for soil testing analysis, as well as a fold-out tent where upwards of 100 farmers can attend training sessions— stopped at Nanjego’s farm. The truck has traveled across the country, crisscrossing rural communities and hard-to-reach areas to teach farmers how to prepare land, apply fertilizer, use seeds, and manage diseases and mold like aflatoxin. It has also worked closely with farmers like Gad Brightard, who says that Grainpulse’s training and fertilizer has helped ensure lush coffee trees and high-quality beans on his farm in Kabarole in western Uganda. With support from GAFSP, the company also distributes training manuals and informational leaflets that provide easy-to-use information on streamlined techniques, as well as financial literacy training.

“Farmers are doubling their yields and with continued training on good agricultural practices, they can improve even more,” says Hilary Rugema, Grainpulse’s lead agronomist.

This ongoing training is critical, according to Theron, who says that empowering smallholders helps secure Grainpulse’s financial future, while also creating opportunity for the people who ensure Uganda’s food security. “By getting agricultural inputs and know-how directly in the hands of farmers, we are giving them the tools to be more successful,” she said. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”

This article was originally published by GAFSP.