Friday, April 13, 2012

Notes from the field #6: Farmers of the Future Pilot Phase

After 2 years in development, we started the pilot phase of Farmers of the Future in October 2011. In this post we'll describe details of the program being tested and how it's going.

Farmers of the Future has two main components: a classroom curriculum covering seven major topics and practical experience in a "mini-farm" which we've created adjacent to the school. The program is taught over a period of two years.

In the classroom there are modules on how to grow vegetables and legumes, how to grow trees and how to raise small animals. More broadly, students learn about the environment and how it is changing, the need to manage water, the benefits of irrigation, the importance of nutrition and simple concepts of business. That's a handful for teachers to add to the regular curriculum and a lot for the kids to absorb!

The "mini-farm" has a vegetable garden, tree nursery and animal enclosure. In addition, each farm has a well, pump, and water reservoir for use in irrigation. And the farm is fenced to keep grazing animals out and protect the children's hard efforts.

The scope of the program is broad and continues to expand. The topics of environment and nutrition were recently added. We're looking to incorporate a school lunch program. And we're working out details for income-generating projects for mothers to accelerate attitude change in the broader community.

Suffice it to say, Farmers of the Future is EPN's most ambitious and complex project. As we traveled around to the three pilot schools and visited with all the key players it was clear that much has been accomplished and there's much still to do.

We had hoped to have all teaching materials completed by the start of the school year this past October. But the local supplier didn't come through and we lost valuable time. We conducted an abbreviated teacher training session in January and ended up with a "soft launch" of the program mid-year. We're working hard to complete the teacher's manual and student texts, including the two new subjects, in time for the start of the next school year this October.

 The mini-farms are up and running at all 3 schools and they look good. There's a punch list of items to address but nothing of major concern. Since the teachers typically lack practical farm experience we have an agricultural technician and assistant who work with the students and teachers in the mini-farm and the kids really enjoy the hands-on work.

The ultimate goal of Farmers of the Future is to change attitudes about farming and to recognize its potential to increase income and the availability of nutritious food. While the primary focus is changing attitudes among students, we don't want to miss the opportunity to influence parents as well. Students will have work assignments to do at home and parents will be invited to attend school "open days" where students showcase what they've been learning.

We're particularly excited by the opportunity to leverage the resources available at the school to support income-generating activities for mothers. With the school's available water, fencing and technical assistance there's an opportunity to add programs for adults at minimal additional cost.

For example, we're looking to add a tree nursery program for moms. Growing tree saplings for resale can be a very lucrative business. With relatively little additional space and use of water we can have 20 women growing 20,000 trees. Annual revenues will be approximately $25,000 and expenses only about $6,000. Profits would be split 70% for the individual, 30% to the collective to offset operating expenses, pay for school fees, and create a pool of money to fund other entrepreneurial ventures in the community. We're hoping that nothing will change attitudes faster than a successful profit generator for parents, the school and the community.

Farmers of the Future is our most ambitious project because the goal is to create a program that can eventually be scaled to hundreds or thousands of schools in Niger and other countries in the arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa. To do that we'll need support at the national as well as local level. In our third post we'll describe the exciting progress that's been made in building awareness and support at the highest levels in Niger.

In the meantime, check out this video from our visit to Farmers of the Future.


  1. John, Good to learn the news of such inspiring progress; and I'm sure it's a lot more fulfilling than marketing Candy. All the best to you, Judy, your team, the teachers, the students and their parents.

  2. Thanks David. Farmers of the Future is the "highest risk-highest return" project we've undertaken so we need all the good wishes we can get. There are many hurdles to clear, but if successful, this program could have huge benefits for NIger and other arid countries in Africa.