Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is not for the fainthearted, but for the 10 senior food and drink industry executives preparing to tackle Africa’s tallest mountain, the biggest challenge is raising the profile of FARM-Africa, an aid agency that is helping African farmers climb out of poverty. Virginia Matthews reports

FARM-Africa has been making a difference to the lives of East African subsistence farmers for more than 25 years; introducing them to new farming techniques and identifying breakthrough products for their crops. Creating change “that is sustainable rather than quick-fix”, in the words of patron Michael Palin.

With the help of FARM-Africa’s Maendeleo Agricultural Technology Fund (MATF) set up in 2002 to help provide smallholdings with access to proven agricultural innovations Kenyan farmers outside Nairobi, for example, have switched from their traditional cut flowers to cultivating indigenous, short-cycle leafy veg grown from improved seed. The charity has secured payment-on-delivery contracts with the Uchumi and Nakumatt supermarkets and average gross margins per farmed acre have increased more than fourfold.

sponsoring the climb - and what’s in it for you 

The expedition team, which sets out on 22 September, is looking for individual and corporate sponsors. Initial launch sponsors include: Anglo Beef Processors, AB Sugar, Booker, Dairy Crest, Mars, Moy Park, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. A pre-expedition dinner with the climbers, hosted by FARM-Africa patron Michael Palin (below) and sponsored by The Grocer, will take place on 12 September 2011 at Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social in London. You can follow the expedition’s progress on a special website: 

To find out how you and your organisation can sponsor the expedition team, and to attend the exclusive dinner, please see the ad on page 26, or contact Ngaio Bowthorpe at FARM-Africa on 020 7430 0440 

All the climbers including nine senior executives from the UK food industry are covering their own costs, so all money raised will go directly to FARM-Africa. 

Alternatively, if you or your company would like to be involved in this project in any other way, please email Macdonald, non-executive director of Moy Park & Dairy Crest, and former director general of the National Farmers’ Union, is a FARM-Africa trustee. “All of us in UK Food plc are now involved in global supply chains and are concerned about production across the world,” says Macdonald. “In Africa, a prosperous and productive agriculture is immensely important to that continent, as its populations explode. Put that together and we should do our bit to help Africa’s food and farming.”


From modest beginnings the charity’s first project was the supply of goats, on credit, to Kenyan nomads FARM-Africa’s focus on more reliable food production, better animal husbandry and long-term forestry management has already made a significant impact throughout its heartland of rural Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya and the Sudan. Yet while the organisation’s on-the-ground collaboration with key players such as Oxfam and Save the Children is well known throughout East Africa, the prime aim of this September’s fundraising climb organised by Richard Macdonald, former NFU director general and a trustee of the charity is to raise its profile in the UK food and drink sector.

“Our focus is on sustainable wealth creation among the remote, largely female subsistence farmers, herders, fishermen and foresters who typify the African smallholder economy and who are suffering badly from war, climate change and crop unpredictability,” says charity CEO Nigel Harris. “By helping them to grow more, sell more and investigate new markets, these people are able to afford to send their children to school, re-invest in their farms and start to climb out of grinding poverty.

“I hope the Kilimanjaro venture will encourage the UK food and drink sector as a whole to get involved in one of our many long-term sustainability projects as well as perhaps consider a donation,” he adds.

While the charity’s London office-cum-fundraising HQ runs to just 20 people, the heart of the organisation lies with the 250 frontline staff, all African, who live alongside the farmers and turn their hand to anything from borehole-drilling to planting the latest drought-resistant seed. Like most charities, FARM-Africa relies on funding from a variety of domestic and international sources; among them, the UK government, the EU, trusts, individual donors and set-piece events such as Comic Relief. Yet the obvious fit between grassroots projects in dry-land farming, forest beekeeping or soil conservation in the developing world and technological advances in the developed, make the skills and resources of the corporate sector uniquely relevant, says Harris.

In 2010, FARM-Africa spent some £7.6m, more than 87% of which was allocated to its African projects. While it worked directly with 649,000 individual farmers through the year, Harris believes its work significantly improved the lives of about 7.6 million Eastern Africans when the impact on family members and local communities is taken into account. A good example is its joint project with SAB Miller in Southern Sudan, which puts local cassava farmers at the heart of the brewery’s African supply chain. Launched last year, the Local Cassava Initiative not only offers a guaranteed market for the crop its high levels of starch are a substitute for sugar in brewing but is already helping transform cassava from a subsistence-only to a cash crop.

For SAB Miller, which pays above the market rate for the crop and deliberately leaves farmers free to pursue more lucrative supply deals, the three-year Sudanese project allows it to pursue its global strategy of local sourcing for local markets. The project will also bring direct market opportunities to about 2,000 smallholder farmers by the end of year three, equating to more than 15,000 Africans in all.

“Subsistence and smallholder farmers are crucial to Africa’s agricultural development, which, in turn, is key to the continent’s economic growth,” says Andy Wales, group head of sustainable development at SAB Miller. “We believe food and drink producers are ideally placed to play an active role in driving that development, to the benefit of their local businesses.”

To Wani Kose Jada, a local cassava farmer who currently feeds his family one meal a day, the benefits are more immediate. “If I get more income from cassava farming, I will invest the benefits in buying more equipment so my production can continue to increase,” he says.

In terms of its efficiency as an investment, MATF has regularly delivered 32-fold returns. A recent MATF grant has already increased the profitability of cashew nut production by 400% and has helped deliver yield increases of up to 166% per acre for more than 1,000 farmers in the Masasi district of Tanzania. Having used brand new links with the private sector to improve farm management, farmers have gained organic certification and are investigating profitable fair trade markets.

While Harris doesn’t underestimate the sheer scale of transforming hand-to-mouth farming into profit in a region where as many as 80% of Africans rely on their crops and animals to survive, he remains optimistic that much more can be done. “When people are dying today, emergency aid is the top priority,” says Harris. “But we believe that investing in sustainable wealth creation for the long term may prevent people dying tomorrow.”