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How John Deere is teaching small farmers better agricultural techniques to end ‘hunger season’

The farm equipment company launched Rayuwa—a winner of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards—to provide education that could improve the yields of farmers in Nigeria.

How John Deere is teaching small farmers better agricultural techniques to end ‘hunger season’
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Across Nigeria, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated poverty, worsened food insecurity, and particularly hit the country’s agriculture sector—one reliant on small farmers, who account for 88% of Nigerian farms and produce more than 95% of the country’s agricultural output. But a subset of those farmers saw their food insecurity decrease and total earnings increase in 2020, thanks in part to a program from John Deere called Rayuwa.

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In Nigeria, more than a third of the country’s labor force works in agriculture. Small farms are crucial to that economic pillar, especially as its population grows; Nigeria, already the most populous country in Africa with 200 million people, expects its population to increase to more than 400 million people by 2050. That growth could hurt farmers there who struggle with food security, poverty, and challenges such as the “hunger season,” the period from June to August when the last harvest has been depleted but the new one isn’t yet ready.

Shuaibu Ishaka [Photo: courtesy John Deere]
John Deere was founded 184 years ago, and over that time, says Nate Clark, president of the John Deere Foundation, the company has seen “how farmers have produced really widespread prosperity—not only by making food and other agricultural products more widely available but actually creating communities and economies that have improved the quality of life for billions of folks.” The company saw potential in Nigeria’s farmers, in a country where small farms are so crucial and yet so many farmers are still struggling. So the company and its foundation—its philanthropic arm, which gives out grants and corporate sponsorships oriented toward issues such as hunger, education, and sustainability, and which recently announced a goal to invest $200 million over the next 10 years in part to bolster farmers around the world—created Rayuwa, which means “life” and “livelihood” in Hausa.

Rahila Sama’ila [Photo: courtesy John Deere]
The goal of Rayuwa was never to deliver machinery or equipment to Nigerian farmers, but to impart agricultural training and youth education to help both current farmers and the farmers of the future. Rayuwa is the winner of the corporate social responsibility category of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards.

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Hauwa Ezikiel [Photo: courtesy John Deere]
“One of the things that our nearly two centuries of business has taught us is if you have educated farmers and farm families, those farmers and farm families are more successful and resilient,” Clark says. “With a program like Rayuwa, we’re investing simultaneously in the farmers of today, and those who will be the farmers of tomorrow.” It was crucial that Rayuwa be rooted in the communities it serves, so it’s staffed, owned, and managed locally. Students from local universities trained in agriculture and education, some of whom were from the villages Rayuwa was established in, were tapped to lead the programming. John Deere was also intentional about not prioritizing mechanization; these farms are so small, machinery isn’t necessary. One emphasis was on offering agronomic training, “to learn things like when to plant, how to plant, how to space their crops,” Clark says, along with access to high-quality seeds and fertilizers, and links to markets where farmers can sell their products.

Sanusi Lawal [Photo: courtesy John Deere]
Rayuwa began in November 2019, in partnership with the nonprofit PYXERA Global, which advises corporations on sustainability initiatives, and which in December 2020 completed its first year of working with 2,500 smallholder farmers and 4,000 youth across 11 northern Nigerian villages. Despite the pandemic, the results were positive: Rayuwa farmers reduced their “hunger season” food insecurity rate from 63% to 53% because of improved crop yields (thanks to better fertilizers, seeds, and planting techniques) and the ability to get higher prices for those crops, along with income from other sources such as livestock, which allowed them to buy more food. The farmers increased their total earnings by $1.3 million. Rayuwa youth also increased their top scores in letter and number recognition by 60% and 77% respectively, and 300 youth returned to their villages from cities to further their education and to farm.

Rayuwa is now expanding, with a 2021 goal of doubling its reach from 11 villages to 21, and Clark says John Deere is thinking of how else the program can grow. “While there is certainly a sense of urgency to work with Nigeria’s farmers to secure nourishment and food and growth and all the things that they will need,” he says, “there’s also an awareness that it will take time, and that John Deere is in it for the long haul.”