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How One Pioneering Business is Raising Incomes in the Kenyan Highlands

Posted by Will McAneny  |  Jan 27, 2017 9:48:10 AM

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Janet Karea Mutuura, 62, at her compound in Meru, Kenya. 

Janet Karea Mutuura enters her compound through a brand-new iron gate, shutting it behind her with a soft clang. It’s a hot day in Meru, Kenya, with the equatorial sun blazing high overhead. But while the ground might be dry and cracked from weeks of unrelenting sunshine, Janet’s compound is full of life. Bleating goats amble from tree to tree in search of a stray weed or patch of grass, while clucking chickens peck at their hooves. In the distance, the lowing of a cow can be heard.

Janet pauses for a moment to survey the yard, standing with one hand on her hip and the other shielding her eyes from the sun. “If it weren’t for the money I received from Sorghum Pioneer,” she says, “none of these goats or chickens would be around.”

Sixty-two years old, Janet has farmed all her life. But until recently, she struggled to support a family on the meager wages she had earned. For decades, Janet practiced share-cropping: growing small parcels of crops on other farmers’ land, which she would then sell at cut-rate prices in local markets. She had enough to survive, but barely — her home was small, and she couldn’t afford school fees for her children. Says Janet, “I used to take my tea without sugar. I couldn’t afford the expense.”

Janet’s story is typical of many farmers in the Tharaka Nithi province, a region less than 150 miles from Nairobi, but one that feels like a different world. The average farmer in the region earns less than $1.25 per day, eking out a living from a plot of land barely twice the size of a baseball field. In the region’s semi-arid climate, water is a precious resource — and with climate change beginning to change the way the rain falls, food insecurity is becoming an ever-more pervasive threat. In the leaner months of the year, when income from the harvest begins to run out, many farmers rely on government-sponsored food aid.

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Janet feeds the chickens she purchased with the money she earned from Sorghum Pioneer. 

Fortunately, local business leaders are taking it upon themselves to raise incomes for thousands of farmers like Janet. In 2009, a sorghum business called Sorghum Pioneer Agencies introduced a drought-resistant variety of sorghum to the region, providing farmers with a crop they could count on to survive the arid climate. After the harvest, the business then collects sorghum harvests from 8,000 farmers across the region and sells it in large bundles for higher prices — guaranteeing better incomes for farmers who sell to them. But that’s not all: Sorghum Pioneer Agencies, led by a woman named Beatrice Nkatha Munyi, supports its farmers with technical assistance with each step of the farming process and small loans to individual farmers.

When Root Capital began financing Sorghum Pioneer Agencies in 2015 with a general working capital loan of $230,000, the business couldn’t find a similar loan on similar terms from any other financial institutions. This is an experience that many of Root Capital’s clients share; businesses with the potential to provide employment opportunities and raise incomes for thousands of farmers often can’t get the capital or training that they need to do so.

But with just a bit of support, businesses like Sorghum Pioneer can do great things. Before Root Capital began to finance them, they were purchasing about 1,700 metric tons of sorghum from local farmers. Today, that number is closer to 4,000 metric tons. With more capital, businesses like Sorghum Pioneer can purchase more product — and put more money in the hands of farmers that need it most.

And what does that money look like? Just ask Janet. “With my sorghum money,” she says, “I built a good, permanent house. Then I built a nice gate for my home, and I feel secure at night because I lock it before I go to sleep. And best of all, I used the sorghum money to educate my children in higher learning institutions… and now they all have jobs!” 


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Topics: Food Security & Nutrition, East Africa, Women in Agriculture