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    grass roots economics

    By George Munene

    Across Kenya, in Kilifi, Kwale, Kakuma, Embu, West Pokot, the informal settlements of Kawangware, Mukuru Kwa Njenga, and Kibera poor farmers who were previously on the fringes of the larger economy are now leasing shambas, buying agricultural inputs, sinking water wells, buying and selling their crop, all with little engagement with the country's national currency but through Sarafu ya Jamii, a community inclusive digital currency.

    Sarafu was developed by American economist Will Ruddick, the founder of Grassroots Economics, a non-profit foundation, and rolled out in late October 2020. Thus far, Sh3.4 million worth of transactions has been made in Sarafu countrywide. In Kwale alone, though its Shamba ya Jamii program, it has 60 farming chamas each with 20 members. In Kilifi, farmers can receive payment for selling their agriproduce to mama mbogas in Sarafu, which they can then use to buy a cup of tea.  The community inclusive currency acts as a conduit for the supply of labor and products to a marketplace that is often education and skills rich but monetarily poor.

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    "Through Sarafu, we hope to redefine donor funding models by building self-sustaining and empowering models of helping communities develop their own prospering economies with the privilege and stability of their own currencies, " said Grassroots Economics Director Shaila Agha.

    Users are onboarded on Sarafu through *384*96# USSD code. At entry, one gets 50 free Sarafu coins. They then transact with other users offering products (eg, food, water) and services (eg, farming labor, education) to earn more coins.

    Though cryptocurrency is all the vogue, Shaila explains that theirs is a community-held digital currency. Unlike crypto, Sarafu is a stable currency that cannot be speculated on. Though its value is one to one with the Kenyan shilling it cannot be converted to cash, rather it exists as a permanent digital ledger of transactions. A two per cent tax is also charged to any Sarafu hoarders--after all, there is no cashing out and buying a Lamborghini with the digital currency. These coins are transferred to frequent users who have a more obvious need for currency.

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    Beyond the use of digital currency, Grassroots Economics is also working to empower farming communities through financial literacy (users cannot accept payments of over 20 per cent in Sarafu); entrepreneurial training—giving farmers in Kinango, Kwale County value addition tools and skills for refining moringa into soap; teaching farmers modern agriculture methods like syntropic agriculture. 

    The non-profit also plans on putting more money into farmers' pockets through monetizing its large data repository to offer solutions for companies in the agricultural space and aggregating the land of its over 1300 farmers to help them benefit from the carbon credit system.

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    Alfred Koome 3

    By George Munene

    When Alfred Koome touched down in Kenya from India on September 5, 2020, with a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture degree in hand he had it all mapped out: "I had received positive feedback from resumes I had sent out and was looking forward to getting employed at a flower farm around my hometown of Timau," he said. Even the best-laid plans though often go awry; due to European lockdown measures occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic Kenyan flower exports were down over 90 per cent and flower farms were undertaking mass layoffs.

    This disappointment however birthed a budding garlic business that sees the 26-year-old deliver 400 kilograms of the herb at Sh250 a kilo to markets in Nanyuki and Isiolo every month. As he describes it: "I would not come close to making this much in formal employment."

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    "As a man, you only have so much time to feel sorry for yourself—I had access to a sizable plot of land, agricultural expertise, and had done extensive research on high-value crops I could cultivate, " said Koome. 

    His sights were set on garlic farming and with good reason: "A bulb of garlic cost Sh20-30 in markets, a price that is similar to that of a kilogram of potatoes, " he points out.

    He first got into French beans (Mishiri) farming and used the returns he got to invest in garlic seedlings. Propagation material (seedlings) constitute the most significant bottleneck in terms of cost for potential garlic farmers. A kilogram of seedlings costs Sh300, with an acre requiring at least 100 kilograms.

    Garlic farming is also no "get rich quick scheme" demanding Zen-like patience from farmers: Garlic cloves used in its propagation take three months to break their dormancy (sufficiently remove or damage the seed coat to allow water entry), with another four to three months required for the crop to mature.

    Alfred Koome

    While most farmers opt to grow and sell their crops in bulk, Koome has found value in subdividing his acre of land and selling his crop piecemeal. "Farm-gate prices hover at Sh200 a kilogram while bulk buyers offtake at least half a tonne of garlic from the farm at Sh100 for a kilo. I would rather deliver smaller quantities to mama mbogas and consumers directly at Sh250, which also ensures that I have a steady income throughout, " he explained.

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    The young farmer who is an incubatee of the ongoing Enable Youth Program—an African Development Bank (AfDB) and Government funded program that aims to train, mentor, and fund young agripreneurers—is currently gearing up to ensure he has a bumper harvest ready for the December holidays. 

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    farmer max kenya

    By George Munene

    On some 10 acres of farmland in Muramati, Laikipia county, Max Armbrust, keeps 5,000-6,000 chickens, 20 sheep, and 5 dairy cows. His, however, is no standard livestock farm. Farmer Max, as he is commonly known, is Kenya's first adoptee of large-scale regenerative livestock farming, using free-range broiler chickens raised on pasture to reclaim depleted soils.  

    This management practice leverages intensive poultry grazing to restore soil fertility while at the same time raising healthier animals that are free of antibiotics, steroids, or hormones. The chickens are not confined but allowed to exhibit all their natural characteristics— foraging, scratching, and running around— leading to an improved quality of life.

    According to a research paper on the Economics of Land Degradation and Improvement in Kenya, the costs of land degradation due to land use and land cover changes reached the equivalent of Sh141 billion annually between 2001 and 2009. Moreover, the costs of rangeland degradation calculated through losses in milk and meat production, as well as in livestock live weight decreases reach about Sh8.7 billion annually. Furthermore, the costs of deterioration in soil physical, chemical, and biological properties led to lower yields for wheat, maize, and rice estimated at about Sh29 billion annually. The cost of taking action to rehabilitate degraded lands was found to be lower than the cost of inaction by four times over a 30-year period, i.e., each dollar invested in land rehabilitation is likely to yield four dollars of returns.

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    “When we first bought the property in 2019, it was typical of many small to medium-sized farms where conventional farming methods have been employed; heavily tilled, grazed, and depleted,” Max pointed out. 

    Continued tilling causes carbon to be released from the soil, which in turn diminishes the number of microorganisms in the soil which depend on it for sustenance. With time this leaves the soil unable to supply essential adequate plant nutrients and water for plant growth and reproduction. Overgrazing for its part exerts pressure on vegetation which acts as ground cover. This leaves the soil bare and unprotected raising its temperature to levels that are unsustainable for hosting soil microbiomes.

    Two years on, from having big patches of barren soil, 99 per cent of the farm’s land now has vegetative cover. “From an aerial view of our farm, you can clearly tell where the chickens have grazed as the vegetation is visibly lush. The idea is that when the soils are healthy, pastures are healthy, animals are healthy, we are healthy, and the planet is healthy,” Max said.

    Once the chickens are out of their brooders, they are introduced to foraging pastures on portable coops. Rotating the chickens daily is essential as it avoids vegetative depletion as well as preventing disease buildup.

    Before chickens are introduced to new pastures, cows are grazed on the piece of land 10 days prior. They graze the grass down to about six inches. When the chickens are introduced, they find cow dung patties that are full of natural proteins— this serves as a supplement to their feed. The litter left behind by the chicken is rich in nitrogen which fertilises the soil and helps in its regeneration.A herd of sheep then trail the chickens— they help to maintain pasture at a height that is suited to the chicken as well as further fertilising the soil.”

    Farmer Max BeforeFarmer Max After

                          Before                                               After

    As different ruminants forage on a diverse range of grasses, this forms a virtuous cycle that imparts nutrients back into the soil. 

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    Farmer Max’s Chicken is amongst the two farms practicing regenerative farming in Kenya, the second being Tamalu Farm in Timau which employs agroforestry. 

    Regenerative agriculture refers to farming/grazing practices that restore the soil’s organic matter and repair degraded soil biodiversity and improve its ability to hold water. This increases microbial life making pastures lush and healthy as well as resulting in carbon dioxide removal.

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