Nancy Wambui, founder of Quinam Investments (Right) with some of her farmers in a sorghum farm located in Gachua, Meru County. [Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]

In 2010, Nancy Wambui started a cereal store and connected smallholder farmers to the markets. At this time, she realised farmers, especially in rural areas, were facing challenges in selling their produce, which exposed them to brokers who exploited them by offering low prices.

Through her company, Quinam Investments, Nancy started aggregating sorghum from just a handful of farmers and linking them to various markets. In six years, her farmers had increased to 127 in Meru and Tharaka Nithi.

Her hard work started paying off in 2017 when she secured an aggregation business contract from East African Breweries (EABL) to supply sorghum for their malting business. Unfortunately, she had a few unskilled farmers who couldn’t produce enough sorghum to supply EABL.

“As a business owner in the agriculture sector, I knew firsthand that training farmers on land preparation, inputs, agronomy practises, aggregation, and post-harvest management was an expensive undertaking but very necessary at the time. I continued to invest in training farmers to ensure they produced high-quality produce,” she explains.

She also embarked on a recruitment exercise, and within a short time, she had 1500 farmers.

In October 2020, Nancy attended a workshop session organised by the Netherlands Development Organisation under the Creating Resilient Agribusiness for Tomorrow Project (CRAFT) in Embu that focused on introducing and promoting the cereal value chain.

She was excited about the project’s training of farmers, but despite her interest in partnering and working with the project, a long application process that included the provision of a business plan to secure funding discouraged her.

She explains, “At first, I was sceptical about following through with such a time-consuming process; after all, I thought being a trader was enough. But after understanding their plans for facilitating technical interventions to our business and training farmers on good agronomic practises and climate-smart agriculture, I saw the value in it; it would enable us to reach more farmers, increase yields, and aggregate more sorghum.”

The funding she received helped recruit trainers of Trainers (ToTs) and onboard lead farmers across Tharaka and Meru counties. Nancy shares that the focus was then training farmers to become trainers of other farmers, enabling them to reach a wider network of farmers. “This approach has yielded significant results, with farmer numbers increasing from 1,500 in 2020 to 9,000 currently,” she says.

Additionally, the volumes of sorghum aggregated have grown from 8 metric tonnes in 2020 to an impressive 3,000 metric tonnes per season in 2023. This has been made possible by a group of 33 ToTS, which comprises 70 per cent women and 30 per cent youth.

Nancy explains, “Farmers engaged in the value chain also diversify their livelihoods by planting beans and maize. This diversification is important for both farmers and the environment since beans help in nitrogen fixation and food production, and maize offers an alternative source of income and nutrition security too.”

She reveals that when beans and maize are ready and in surplus, her company offtakes them and sells them to The World Food Programme, which distributes them to areas stricken with drought and other calamities across the world.

Nancy has created a model that links farmers to accredited agro-dealers, soil testing experts, weather forecasting services to better plan their farms, trainers who teach the adoption of climate-smart solutions, and trained the youth to establish service provision enterprises that provide spraying and threshing services at a fee.

Susan Kairothi, a farmer from Gachua, Meru County, and also a trainer of trainers, recalls how they previously struggled with low sorghum yields before intervention.

“We used to just plant and wait for any volume of produce, no fertilisers, no knowledge of good agricultural practises, and still expect to make money, which never came by. On an acre of sorghum, we would get 20 bags of sorghum weighing 50kg,” she says.

After training by Quinam, Susan and others learned the importance of using certified seeds and how to conserve water in the soils by creating basins that reduce surface runoff when it rains since the water is slowly released in the soil.

She no longer throws away the remains of the sorghum stalks, instead re-ploughing them back into the soil to improve the organic matter, which is very helpful in improving the soil structure and retaining soil moisture.

“We also undertake crop rotation. Beyond farming and offering a good price for our produce, Quinam Investment is making farming much more bearable by allowing farmers under my wing to obtain seeds, fertiliser, and pesticides for their farms on credit as they wait for the produce to mature,” explains Susan, one of the trainer of trainers in the region who supports over 300 farmers throughout the value chain from production to aggregation.

Quinam Investment then collects the produce and deducts the cost of inputs from the sorghum the farmer delivers. This way, more farmers can grow sorghum and also make an income after deducting the expenses.

Susan explains that her produce has increased to 50 bags per acre. She says the use of a thresher has enhanced clean grain and reduced harvesting waste.

Stella Muthee, a lead aggregator and an agro-vet dealer that provides inputs to farmers, lauds her engagement with Quinam Investment. “Farmers we support have increased their production of sorghum due to training on conservation agriculture,” says Stella, adding that from this arrangement, she earns a commission on every bag delivered to Quinam.

Alphonse Muriu, Senior Business Advisor at CRAFT, explains that to make a systemic change along the value chain, it is critical to carefully target businesses that deal with and work through all actors, including smallholder farmers.

“An inclusive agribusiness approach addresses the needs of smallholder farmers while building resilience and sustaining the co-existence between people, planet, and profits that is essential in adapting to the realities of climate change,” he says.

Nancy emphasises that CRAFT’s targeted technical assistance, business facilitation, and marketing systems development support have catalysed her market penetration rate, which has contributed to her business growth.