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A woman takes a break from clearing bush to make space for growing maize in Sauri, western Kenya, in this file photo. (KAREL PRINSLOO/AP)
A woman takes a break from clearing bush to make space for growing maize in Sauri, western Kenya, in this file photo. (KAREL PRINSLOO/AP)

Aid lifts Kenyan maize farmers’ fortunes Add to ...

Tearing off long green leaves from a towering maize plant, Emily Nabwile Misiko offers them to her cow.

Sitting under a tree beside her mud and dung hut in western Kenya, the animal is her prize possession – and proof that a new scheme to help the world’s poorest farmers is working.

Just last year, Ms Misiko grew the equivalent of five 90-kilogram sacks of maize, the country’s staple, from her small half-acre plot. That was just about enough to feed her family of six for a year, but not enough to sell any surplus.

This year that has changed, thanks to a loan from charity One Acre Fund, whose work the Financial Times is highlighting as part of its inaugural Summer Charity Spotlight.

Ms. Misiko made the most of new seeds, fertilizer and training to bring radical change to her farm: She more than doubled her crop to 12 bags and invested the proceeds from the sale of seven sacks into buying the cow.

“Before I used to scatter maize seeds and that was that,” says the 24-year old, sitting in the low light of her hut, as a chicken pecks its way around. Ms. Misiko now plants seeds in carefully dug holes in rows, topped with fertilizer in individual mounds. The results have been so successful she hopes to take out new loans and rent an additional half acre to make the most of her flourishing harvests.

“Before the maize was so short but now nobody can see me when I go in there,” she says of the small paths that wind through the thick, tall crop.

Her story is repeated among western Kenya’s smallholder farmers.

One Acre Fund, which also works in Rwanda and Burundi, says the inputs provided from a small annual $75 (U.S.) loan – enough for a three-quarter acre plot – will double output at a time when global supply is falling and prices rising. Its speedy take-up is impressive: From an initial 40 families in 2006, the group assists 130,000 farmers and wants to reach 1.5 million by 2020.

“I believe fertilizer is the world’s most important humanitarian product,” says the charity’s founder Andrew Youn, a 33-year-old former management consultant and Yale graduate. “We believe seed, fertilizer and training kick-starts this economic engine for people to earn their way out of poverty.”

The charity recoups about 85 per cent of its $14.1-million field operation costs from farmers repaying $12.1-million in loans, on which they pay about 17 per cent interest. It wants to make $20-million in loans next year as it scales up.

To fund its ambitions, One Acre Fund is seeking loans from commercial banks, alongside soft loans and grants from development finance institutions and public support. Mr. Youn says the money goes a long way: Each loan can be lent twice in a year, thanks to two annual harvests, and provides collateral to raise money for a third loan, too.

Not only does the group provide seeds, fertilizer and pesticide but each $75 package also provides sacks for storage, insurance and, perhaps most important of all, training.

“The difference is the techniques,” says Wilbrodah Nekesa Simiyu, who, like Ms. Misiki, used to scatter both seeds and fertilizer in a random spray across her small patch of land. Her harvest also doubled to 12 bags.

The poverty trap is not averted just yet, however. Rampant speculation means maize prices fluctuate wildly: low during harvest times and close to three times as high during the interim. Few smallholder farmers can afford to wait.

“If I didn’t have to pay school fees I could withhold my maize, but I have to sell it when prices are low to pay the fees,” says Mrs. Simiyu.

Even so, the One Acre Fund approach is so successful some have even abandoned sugar cane, the region’s lacklustre cash crop.

“Sugar cane takes a longer time to mature and it doesn’t help our suffering with hunger,” says Esther Muricho, a 57-year-old mother of ten children. “Now I plant maize.”

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