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How 75,000 Abandoned Cabbages Inspired A Huge Online Forum For Farmers In Africa

Noah Nasiali-Kadima, foreground, takes a selfie with members of the Africa Farmers Group during a tour of a member's farm in Machakos County, Kenya.
Noah Nasiali-Kadima
Noah Nasiali-Kadima, foreground, takes a selfie with members of the Africa Farmers Group during a tour of a member's farm in Machakos County, Kenya.

Making lemonade out of life's lemons is one thing. But what could Kenyan IT consultant-turned-farmer Noah Nasiali-Kadima do with the 75,000 fresh cabbages he had been stuck with?

That was the dilemma he faced in 2016, when the buyer with whom he had a contract simply walked out on him, refusing to pay and leaving him with six acres of ripe cabbages that had cost most of his savings to produce.

He was uncertain how to proceed, to whom he could turn for help or whether to give up altogether. So he came up with a different idea: That year, he started a Facebook group so that he and other farmers — including new ones like himself, and experienced farm veterans — could discuss and come up with solutions to problems just like this.

The Africa Farmers Group now has 138,000 online members in Kenya and throughout Africa. He has also organized in-person educational seminars in countries across the continent including South Africa, Nigeria, Somalia and Zambia. The goal is to help farmers learn the skills they need to succeed, by providing forums in which they can share their own stories of success and failure, and offer their peers empathy, encouragement and practical tips . In recognition of his work, in September 2018, Facebook awarded him $1 million as part of its Facebook Community Leadership Program.

Born and raised in Nairobi, Nasiali-Kadima turned 40 this week. We spoke to him as he was preparing to participate as a speaker at the Food Tank New York City Summit, a two-day conference sponsored by the sustainable agriculture advocacy group Food Tank.

"One of the reasons we asked Noah to participate is that he represents the next generation of farming in Africa," says Food Tank president and co-founder Danielle Nierenberg. "Often at events like these we talk about farmers but farmers aren't part of the conversation, so it was important to us for him to be there."

Nasiali-Kadima spoke to NPR about how to farmers can use the internet to share tips and keep each other motivated through tough times. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

First of all, whatever happened to those 75,000 cabbages?

I sold some, and some went bad on the farm. I gave some away to schools.

And yet, there's a food security crisis in Kenya. A report this month from Save the Children found that drought has left almost 3 million people there facing acute food insecurity. How can local farmers be a part of the solution?

We have a lot of food shortages and food waste. There is a disconnect between the farmers producing the food and then getting it to market and to the people. No one is consulting the farmers themselves about, 'How much can you produce, what do you need to help you to produce more?' There is no collaboration or coordination. I asked myself, 'Why is that happening?'

You started out in technology in 2001, in programming and network management. How did agriculture come into the picture?

I started out just to make some extra money since the tech space had become saturated. My father is a sugar farmer, and my father-in-law is a tomato farmer. One day in 2007, I was with my wife and my father-in-law and I said to him, 'I want to be a farmer.' He looked at me, like, 'Are you really serious?' And I said yes. He gave me and my wife a small piece of land, one-quarter of an acre, near his own farm, which is about an hour away from Nairobi. He wanted us to start small and see how it would work out.

And how did it work out?

At first this was a side career, a way to make an extra coin. I was still doing IT consulting and building IT intelligence systems for security installations, but over time we extended the farm to seven acres. We started with green bell peppers, switched to tomatoes and watermelons and other crops, one of them cabbages.

Then you faced the cabbage fiasco in 2016. Was that a turning point for you?

I thought, this shouldn't happen to any farmer. How come I can't sell this produce? I did not know how to market or pitch what I had, or explain the particular quality or type of cabbage I had.

I told myself that I could probably bounce back, but what happens to other farmers who weren't so young and had no other back-up source of income? I saw how farmers were suffering. We have very many NGOs and very many tech solutions being funded but none that involve the farmers.

I also wanted to make a difference, to see if I can start a group with farmers around me where we can talk about problems, who is buying what, what they are doing that is working and what is not. And I just opened a group on Facebook.

What was the response?

The target was to sign up 3,000 farmers in three months. By the end of those three months, we had 16,000 farmers from across Africa. Some said, 'Please post in English because I cannot speak Swahili!' It was a venue where farmers could talk to each other. I set up weekly online conversations with expert farmers from different regions who have worked with different kinds of soil and crops. Farmers listen to other farmers, so people could ask, 'What were the challenges, how can we learn from you?'

Now we have 138,000 members and growing. We also have more than 100,000 offline members in areas where internet connectivity is a challenge. Our motto is sharing is caring. I have seen farmers who had given up. Then they hear from other farmers who have been through similar experiences. They see what they can do different. They learn they can contact this agronomist for more information about this problem, or try a different crop at this time of year, or maybe a particular variety that will do better in a particular climate, or maybe the soil is not right. These are success stories. They learn how to keep going or start again.

Did you yourself benefit from this mutual help?

A year ago April, floods ruined the whole farm, six acres under water. We lost everything, it was devastating. But as the founder of the group I felt at first I could not show my sadness, I could not cry. Then after two weeks, I shared my story. I took photos and posted them and said, 'This is what my farm looks like now.' The photos needed no captions. In less than one hour, people were responding online, or calling, saying, you cannot give up, you have to start again. All the times I have said this to others, I never thought I would need to hear those words from others.

So you started yet again?

Yes. It was because of the support from my wife and from the group that I was able to start again, trying with three acres of tomatoes and onions to see if it would work.

Then came a different kind of surprise, right?

The award from Facebook came in September 2018. I saw an email and then another and I was in shock. Nobody had brought farmers to the table at such a level before.

How are you using the $1 million award?

We have founded a non-profit and started a Satellite Farmer Program to train farmers in record keeping, management skills and general crop agronomy. We have developed a syllabus that goes into the very practical details of what farmers need to know about how to convert the farm into a business and get the best out of it, for farmers to become what we call agri-preneurs. We teach them how to pitch the markets, when is the best time to bring to market, get the best prices.

We also organize free farm visits and on-site training clinics. I have visited 3,900 farms in the past three years, mostly in Kenya, but also in Botswana, Nigeria and elsewhere. Farmers have opened their farms to me, and I bring other farmers with me, so they learn from each other.

What will you be talking about at the New York City Food Tank Summit this weekend?

I'd like to ask the world to involve us, the farmers, in the decisions and in building the solutions for feeding the world.

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Diane Cole