Startup Profile: Food Security in a Backpack
June 16, 2011 | Robert Puro
Standing on a dirt track runway in Southern Sudan watching Dinka Women lug 90kg bags of food aid back to their homes in the middle of nowhere, an idea occurred to Rachel Zedeck, Founder and Managing Director of Kenya-based startup Backpack Farm (BPF): “If these women can carry these huge bags of maize and beans back to their villages, why can’t we package something that they can carry back to their village to help them farm.”
So Zedeck sold her house, moved to Kenya, and using her savings launched a for profit social venture centered around a canvas backpack containing sustainable agriculture technology that she believes has the potential to improve the income of smallholder farmers, increase food security and grow rural economies in Africa. Backpack Farm’s primary goal is to provide for smallholder farmers’ needs in sub-Saharan Africa by providing them with access to affordable sustainable agriculture technology in combination with a core capacity training program.
A Triple Bottom Line
Backpack Farm’s decision to go the for profit, triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) route came partly in response to seeing non-profits inefficiently spend millions of dollars per year on programs that barely made an impact on smallholder farmers. “They (non-profits) have programs that cost them a million dollars and they only impact 750 farmers,” said Zedeck. “Right now we’ve reached over 13,000 and I haven’t come anywhere near spending that kind of money. We’re much more flexible.”
According to Zedeck, non-profits in East Africa also tend to focus aid only on so-called “last mile,” or subsistence farmers. Through Backpack Farm she hopes to be a voice for policy development and research that shifts the focus of technology, finance and training to a stratum of smallholder farmers who earn their primary income from farming. “They are our best hope not only for feeding the region, at least in sub-Saharan Africa, but also the world,” she said.
Backpack Farm Product and Program
The backpack itself is an innovative package that contains indigenous or drought-resistant hybrid seeds, biological crop protection and fertilizer inputs, a water filter, a water tank, a sprayer, drip irrigation equipment and a training manual. The cutting edge technology in the kit was developed in partnership with such companies as John Deere Water, Irrico International, Lachlan Kenya Limited and Sandstorm Kenya. The training manual (23 MB) developed by Backpack Farm is also available free of charge from the company’s website.
Backpack Farm, though, is more than just a backpack full of sustainable agriculture technology, said Zedeck. “We’re an agricultural program, not just a kit, or a package, or a backpack,” she said. “We have a 5 stage program that we can leverage to help farming coops, or an outgrower team to mobilize itself properly and produce properly.” The program is designed to support the launch and expansion of local agriculture cooperatives through capacity building. The five stages include:
I. Assessment and Mobilization (supply chain management);
II. Training and Production;
III. Production Monitoring and Market Distribution Strategies;
IV. Assessment and Risk Management and;
V. Expansion through Reinvestment (ensuring transparency, sustainability and natural expansion models within rural sector communities)
The Market Opportunity
Backpack Farm considers its target market the nearly 80 – 100 million smallholder farmers with less than 5 acres of land that reside in the Eastern and sub-Saharan regions of Africa.
Distribution, Training and Consulting
In order to sell its product to these smallholder farmers, Backpack Farm has so far set up seven rural distribution centers or franchises on one-acre farms across Kenya. These rural franchises, which are run by either NGOs or commercial companies, serve not only as points of sale for the backpack, but also as full-time agricultural training centers. Each center provides over 47 different classes, which are offered free of charge to those farmers who cannot afford the backpack in order to help them improve skills, increase yields and learn how to use sustainable technologies. “That’s our commitment to those farmers that if in two years their yields are strong enough for them to want to purchase agri-tech (the backpack), they’re going to have a relationship with us,” said Zedeck. “They’re going to come to us because they trust us.”
Backpack Farm also generates revenue through its consulting division, which works with smallholder farmers to develop value chains and out-grower production operations. “Our newest projects are 4000 farmers growing up to 10,000 farmers with commercial investment,” said Zedeck. As a result of growing brand recognition, she said that she has begun to receive more and more inquiries from Middle Eastern, Asian, American and European firms that want to invest in out-grower production schemes (partnerships between growers or landholders and a company for the production of commercial produce).
The Path to Profitability
To achieve profitability Backpack Farm plans to expand its distribution network throughout the region in order to increase sales and revenue channels as well as build brand awareness in rural farming communities. By the end of July Backpack Farm will have 11 farm distribution and training centers up and running, and by the end of December that number will increase to 20. The company plans to further expand into other countries in the region and be East Africa wide and profitable within 18 months.
If successful, Backpack Farm has the potential to further demonstrate that sustainable agriculture methods and technologies in the hands of trained smallholder farmers can both increase food security in Africa and the world and help to meet the food demands of a world population that will increase by nearly 40% to 9 billion people by 2050.