In the Kenyan reality TV show Don’t Lose the Plot (DLTP), four young farmers budget, plant and grow their farms in a competition that rewards the most profitable and sustainable contestant with an agricultural investment worth $10,000. Set up on one acre of land each, the contenders have nine months to turn their land into a business. Insights by Patricia Gichinga, production manager, and Anna Campbell, writer, director and editor of the show, hint at a new direction for Kenya’s farming future.

A show targeting young farmers

As DLTP begins, four young contestants enter through wide farm gates in slow motion. Introduced as “Leah, the business woman, Issah, the hustler, Winrose, the quiet one and Kenneth, the student”, their long strides and firm demeanors suggest determination. Aged between 19 and 28, the contestants’ farming experience ranges from running a small farm to no experience at all. The show’s creator, Mediae Company, already produces the successful farm make-over show Shamba Shape Up (SSU), in which agricultural experts advise farmers from Kenya and Tanzania as they tackle farm problems through practical, low-cost methods. Patricia comments that the idea to create DLTP emerged out of the observation that the average small holder farmer on SSU, was fifty years old, had been farming the same crops for decades and was generally hesitant to adapt their practices to changing farming conditions and climate change. She explains that “because they have been working that same piece of land, the nutrients have been overused. They are not using fertilizer – it is a new concept to them…[and] soil testing, not a lot of people are doing it”. While Anna acknowledges that some of these traditional practices are “fantastic”, at the end of the day, farmers were not developing the full potential of their farm and missing out on opportunities to increase their income. However, the farmer’s children showed interest in farming and were usually more financially and technologically literate than their parents, arguably more skilled in ways to develop a farm business. But, young people who are in fact interested in farming, usually face several obstacles, of which limited access to land is an important one. As a result, they typically opt to move to urban centres for employment, instead of going into farming.

Changing the face of farming

In order to really make farming a viable option for young Kenyans, Patricia and her colleagues knew they would have to address a range of issues that concerned young people who had typically learned to farm from their parents. Addressing how to plan and budget a farm would be key to ensuring the farm survived the first year and could become foreseeably profitable. Moreover, the advice that the young people were given during DTLP included using the land efficiently and sustainably through crop rotation and growing crops with a profitable market value. DTLP aimed to illustrate that farming is not merely a subsistence activity, but a vital and important career – Mediae wanted to change the negative image of farming. As Patricia explains, “Growing up in Africa, the one thing you were always told in school was ‘If you don’t work hard, you will end up on the shamba, farming’.” By following four young, fun and ambitious candidates throughout the entire growing season as they plan, plough and plant their crops, milk their cows and feed their chickens, the show presents farming as a responsible profession that demands hard work and reaps substantial benefits – something that a clever, young person might want to do. Anna says, “These characters [are] really cool and smart – they could have done business or they could have gone into journalism, they had other things going for them and they chose farming.” Adults watching the show are bound to be impressed by the work and success the farmers have. In fact, upon seeing how well their children were doing when they came to the film set, Patricia noted that one of the contestant’s parents offered to loan them an acre of their own land, as did another contestant’s uncle.

Contestants Issah and Winrose from DLTP (Source: DLTP website, permission for use granted by Patricia Gichinga)

Beyond word of mouth – why technology?

Mediae have set up various platforms that allow farmers to easily access information on low-cost farming methods. The majority of Kenyan farmers live in rural areas where people learn by word of mouth. Anna explains that in such a context, “Phones are potentially important especially for youth who can tap into technology, such as iShamba; [they] are literate and can get their information from more reliable sources. Technology can enable farmers to move away from brokers and [the dangers of] being advised wrongly and ripped off.” The last point should not be taken lightly in a time where agribusinesses are booming and trying to pull in customers by any means necessary. In such an environment, the legitimacy, which Mediae has built through their various television and radio programmes is paramount. Through their platform iShamba, farmers can receive weekly information on at least two crops of their choice as well as weekly weather forecasts (via Kenya Meteorological Department), which crucially helps them decide when to sow. In the face of shifting rain fall patterns linked to climate change such information can make all the difference to a season. Budget Mkononi (Kiswahili for “budget at hand”), is an app that allows farmers to plan and budget for their farm. By entering their crop and acreage, the user receives detailed information stretching from seed prices, planting dates, market prices and a detailed timetable of crop growth. This tool is especially targeted at young farmers who are still learning to grow.

Does it work?

Budget Mkononi is the most popular page on the DLTP website. So far, 4591 budgets have been created and 804 users have edited their budget or requested “more information” on a particular activity. To the producers, this signals an active engagement with the tools offered by Budget Mkononi, and shows that users are interested in planning their farms. The information collected suggests adjustments to the content of the show and of the platform, in order to address users’ interests more directly.

Type of device used for accessing DLTP (Source: Patricia Gichinga)

Significantly, 62.2% of visitors accessed the DLTP website via their mobile phones, again underlining the significance of the device in this part of the world. DLTP just finished broadcasting in August 2017. An impact survey is currently being carried out by an external organization, which will shed more light on how the show is received by young and old viewers. Patricia tells me that the overall reactions have been good. The show managed to reach an audience of 4 million viewers weekly. The success and reputation that Mediae has received through SSU is likely to enhance the reception of DLTP. Looking at the impacts of SSU in 2013, Reading University estimates that there are 428,566 beneficiaries (households reporting increased profit or improved food security) of the show. Households that had made changes influenced by the show saw an average income increase of $215.86 per acre.

So, what does the future of farming look like in Kenya? Amidst ongoing food insecurity in much of East Africa and the increasing tendency for weather extremes and population growth in the region, the interviewees are convinced that young Kenyans will have to farm. Typically for most agrarian economies, the majority of young Kenyans grow up surrounded by farming in some way or another. As Anna suggests, “…that is a powerful platform to bounce from, [and] not one that other countries have as much of”. Whether they like it or not, an innate understanding of how to grow food, along with the possibilities of accessing low cost management advice, gives young Kenyans an advantage that could ensure food security and economic prosperity for themselves and their country in the not too distant future.

This is the second article of two looking at Kenyan farming and increasing urban migration. How can farming be made more attractive to young Kenyans and what could the future of farming look like in the country? The first article is “Business if much cooler than farming.”

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