Learning by seeing at Laikipia’s Model School
Published on: September 29, 2021
Adapted from Understanding the Role of Educational Farms in the Agroecological Transition by Maria Braun
The global food system is at a critical point and has to deal with a growing population, hunger, malnutrition, obesity, changing patterns of consumption on one side and environmental threats related to climate change on the other. Industrial agriculture has overused natural resources and helped cause pollution, land degradation, deforestation and a loss of biodiversity worldwide. A situation that is predicted to become even more critical due to the increasing impacts of climate change over the next decades.
The urgency to address those challenges through a transition towards sustainable and regenerative food system changes has been recognized on a global scale as well as in many national and regional initiatives and action plans. One of the most prominent international strategies is the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal that include goals such as to promote sustainable agriculture, to ensure sustainable production patterns and to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of land-based ecosystems
On a European level the ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy is a large multinational initiative aiming on creating a more sustainable and just food system over the next years and decades. In this context, agroecology and regenerative agriculture are rapidly gaining interest worldwide among a wide range of actors as a holistic response to those multiple and interrelated challenges faced by food systems.
This study is a comprehensive research of various aspects related to educational farms in order to gain a deeper understanding of the role of those farms in agroecological transitions and the consequent implications on future policies and projects.
Knowledge exchange in the farmer network
Farmers, for obvious reasons, are key actors for any changes in agriculture and their local environments and working farms must play a key role in supporting the spread of agroecology, inspiring and training not only other farmers but to encourage on-farm learning for different actors in the food system. Educational farms are “sites of learning that award the opportunity to impart knowledge related to the field of agriculture.
While some farmers might have a traditional education in agronomy and have learned through traditional extension services, many farmers in most parts of the world are learning their agricultural skills and knowledge through intergenerational exchange, own experience, observations and local farmer networks.
It is well documented that in general, farmers are most likely to adapt new approaches and advice coming from other producers, ideally in a very similar context to their own.
Demonstrations are very important to the local people. Because, you know, they learn by seeing in Africa, we believe by seeing things.Joseph, founder of Laikipia
Research involvement is crucial
Having acknowledged that the agroecological transition comprises multiple stakeholders, aspects and levels, not only farmers but also universities and other research institutions “have a crucial role to play in the development of professionals whose work will directly shape the food system towards advancing sustainability”.
Despite a growing number of agroecology related university degrees and training programs in Europe and globally there seems to be a disconnect between agroecological science and farmers’ lived experiences that is also frustrating for the producers.
Lopez-García in his research emphasises that agroecology training programs that provide real-world experiences for students could become an important stimulus for the agroecological transition. By better connecting students’ learning process on a farm, students can better connect knowledge with real-live experiences and then use this deeper understanding to create future visions.
Jennifer at Laikipia farm also sees the positive future impact of students: “Using these students is very is very positive for the community because they will spread the gospel of seed, going organic and permaculture, they know the source of the food they are eating. So we are very happy once we get the students, we know we are creating more capacity that’s out there who can spread the gospel.”
A deeper look at Laikipia, Kenya
The Laikipia project consists of a community trust, a teaching farm and educational centre for regenerative agriculture and agroforestry and was funded in 2014 by Joseph with the aim “to develop agriculturally self-sustaining ecosystem to enhance food security and environmental conservation”.
Its goal is further to motivate farmers in adapting agroforestry to increase their farm’s climate resilience, productivity, and fertility while regenerating degraded land. It started with four local women’s self-help groups, many of them from the Maasai community and the centre is now working with 960 individual farmers in the Laikipia county.
The main produce of the farm is currently a variety of Aloe Vera that is sold locally as well as internationally for cosmetic products and the Opuntia cactus that is processed into various food products but also include a food forest, vegetables, herbs and other crops for consumption. Many collaborations with companies such as LUSH cosmetics and reNature as well as with international government organizations have allowed Laikipia Permaculture Centre to spread its impact beyond the local community, secure funds and distribution for its products.
Based on the interview conducted with Joseph from Laikipia, Kenya, the following educational activities are taking place:
- Free-of-charge agricultural training workshops and activities with local farmers and women’s groups, including follow up support and farm visits
- Paid agricultural training courses on topics such as permaculture or composting
- Collaboration with universities & students for internships and research
- Training for rural entrepreneurs on production, processing and distribution
- Education and activities for local children and schools
Multiple layers of impact
Joseph from Laikipia sees their main impact on two levels: on the local and regional level where they train local farmers and women’s groups, something that could be tracked in numbers: they have grown from 4 women’s groups and 300 members in 2013 to now more than 15 groups consisting of 916 members.
The second level of impact relates to how his educational farm has inspired others in different parts of the country but also Africa to set up similar farm training concepts: “We have seen the replication of our system in Tanzania, in Rwanda, in Burundi, in Ethiopia, we have people we are in contact with who have come to our centre in the past two years, even before COVID. And they have gone back to set up, you know, centres like this. So it’s a huge impact in the region, people coming to learn a lot.”
The major obstacle for both the establishment of an educative farm but also related to the day-to-day of running it was related to finances and the lack of funding. Especially the initial set-up and creation of the needed infrastructure or staff seems especially challenging: “things at the beginning are really hard because remember that there is no source of income. So maybe you need to fundraise or contribute to ads, that kind of infrastructure.” (Joseph, Laikipia).
Always planning for growth
All of the farms would like to increase their reach through for example larger capacities and growing in size but also physically reaching out into a wider local radius. Joseph from Laikipia farm shared that they were aiming to grow the infrastructure of the farm to create a fully developed training farm “where people can come and learn not just our region, but the whole of East Africa”.
Adding more research activities to the farm to first create and then share relevant knowledge with the local community is a planned action or at least an interest for almost all of the farms. At Laikipia, Joseph states “we are trying to do a lot of research to see what works, what doesn’t work. And then we build into a larger scale, what works. (…) And then hopefully, we are now planning the next 5 or 10 years, we believe that the centre will be fully built. And that it will be a place where people can really come and benchmark and see what works for them and then they can again replicate.”