KIMENDE, Kenya – It didn’t matter to the middlemen that it had taken months to grow the neat rows of kale, spinach and other vegetables on the steep, misty slopes of Kenya’s Rift Valley.
When they offered a price as low as a 10th of the market value, they knew that for the farmers living just an hour’s drive from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, the only alternative was watching their produce rot.
“The broker would buy as if they’re the ones that farmed [the crops] themselves and the price was not competitive,” says Flaisher Wanjiku, one of many farmers who have actually made losses on the sale of their vegetables. “Even if you raise a fuss, where are you going to take your produce? If you say you’re not going to sell to this buyer, you will just be left with your produce, because they will just go over there and get it from someone else.”
Up until a year ago, Wanjiku and other neighboring farmers would regularly watch buyers leave the villages around Kimende, at the southern end of Kenya’s Aberdares mountain, with sacks of kale they had bought for as little as $3 and would sell for around $10.
But over the past year, Wanjiku and other farmers living in this area have had their fortunes reversed. They are now able to turn down the middlemen’s low offers thanks to Yvette Ondachi, whose social enterprise helps farmers grow more and pays them fair prices.
“When we were starting the project, we were so oppressed. If we were selling kale and spinach, we would sell a sack for 200 shillings (around $2),” says Wanjiku. “And we are now selling it for 2,000 shillings (around $20).”
Before turning her attention to farming, Ondachi was working for big pharmaceutical companies based in Kenya. After trying her hand at tomato farming in her spare time, she noticed that some of the women farmers in her region were struggling to afford milk for their children, let alone clothes and school fees. She also noticed that even people who were land-rich were still too poor to buy basic drugs.
In 2014, after winning an investment competition, Ondachi quit the corporate world to launch Ojay Greene, a startup that links smallholder farmers to rapidly growing urban markets. She places a particular focus on women, who she considers the key to stopping generational poverty.
“Women farmers are more diligent, and they also have the goal of using the money to put their children to school, so they work harder to get a higher yield,” she says.
Ondachi noticed that when she paid women their earnings, “They were more helpful for their families.” Men, on the other hand, took their money straight to the nearest bar or club, she says.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. But I thought, if we’re going to have [a business] with development, we’re going to need to work with women,” she says.
Ondachi’s model involves providing farmers with better seeds, better fertilizer and new farming techniques to increase their yields, as well as finding outlets that will pay more for ethical and sustainable produce.
She says the farmers she works with now produce on average five times more than they did before, and that some even produce up to eight times more.
When not coming straight from business meetings in Nairobi to visit farms like Wanjiku’s in person, Ondachi and her small team interact with around 3,000 farmers via a mobile platform.
Through this platform, farmers can learn about how to access microfinance options, rather than get ripped off by loan sharks who can charge up to 20 percent interest and demand title deeds as collateral. Farmers can also learn how to deal with crop failures related to climate change by harvesting water rather than waiting for erratic rains, or learn about more modern and sustainable farming techniques.
Before joining Ojay Greene a year ago, Wanjiku would harvest between one to five bags of potatoes per crop and be paid 1,200 shillings (around $12) for each – sometimes even less when supply was high. Now, she produces between 15 to 20 bags and gets a consistent price of 3,000 shillings (around $30).
“With this extra and guaranteed money, I’ve started [raising] poultry and sent my girl to a good boarding school,” she says.
Farmers who sell to Ojay Greene are organized in local groups. In the group that Wanjiku belongs to, 11 of the 12 farmers are women. “There’s now people fighting to join this group because they see how well we are doing,” says Wanjiku.
Other local farmers also benefit from the group’s fair and consistent prices by coordinating their planting times and selling through the group.
Wanjiku now employs five workers on her farm, and has watched other women from her group rise in the community. One was elected as head of Kimede’s community police initiative, while another was appointed to the local church board, which is usually composed of all men.
Ojay Greene’s business has grown much faster than Ondachi expected, despite the difficulty of navigating a straight path to fair trade in a country with high levels of corruption – especially when you’re a woman running a startup that expects to make real gains in a decade’s time. She says she has been asked for kickbacks and encouraged to cut corners, but has refused.
Even during the tough times, Ondachi is happy that she switched from representing big pharma to smallholder farmers.
“I believe the satisfaction comes from making a difference,” she says.