By Eddah Nang’ole
In my role defining criteria for Aceli’s climate & environment impact bonus and supporting lenders to develop and implement ESG policies, I hold two competing realities in my head. There are the agro-ecological practices that I learned early in my career as a researcher studying how beneficial insects can control pests and in later roles in program management and evaluation for regenerative agriculture. And then there are the practices that I grew up with on our family farm in the North Rift region of Kenya – practices that produced high yields in the past but may no longer, at least in their current form, be viable.
My parents grew maize on a 30-acre plot. We were lucky in many ways because they also had full-time jobs so the farm supplemented our family’s income and paid for education and other basic needs. British settlers had brought mechanized practices to our region decades earlier, and our farm and those around us combined mechanized with manual farming. We applied synthetic manure and used hybrid seeds. Tilling and planting was mechanized while spraying herbicides, top dressing, weeding, and harvesting was done by casual workers, mostly women and youth.
While my siblings preferred non-farm activities like household chores, I was always interested in the farm and wanted to contribute. From the age of 12 years, I manually kept the farm records in a notebook, tracking our expenses, making sure the workers were paid on time, and helping my parents to balance the books at the end of the harvest. The production cycle followed a steady calendar rhythm: land preparation and planting in March-April, harvesting in October-November. Yields were consistently high – 40-50 bags per acre.
But the yields started to decline in the late 1990s to 30 bags; today, it’s rare for farmers in the region to harvest more than 15 bags per acre. The soils are depleted from intensive monocropping. The weather is changing too: heavy rains around the harvest increase post-harvest losses; fall army worms multiply with the warming temperatures and drive up costs of pest management. Farmers like my brother, who took over the family farm, must choose between doubling down on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanization or adopting regenerative practices that are more labor-intensive, like planting cover crops, mulching with organic compost, using beneficial insects, and preparing their fields with no-till or low-till techniques.
I’m convinced that regenerative agriculture will benefit farmers, the environment, and our food system in the long run, but the choice for any given farmer today isn’t as clear. Farmers are living on the front lines of climate change. They have limited information, technology, and access to finance. And most don’t have the luxury to experiment with new approaches that might not work.
In developing and administering Aceli’s impact policies, my task is to distinguish between practices that are detrimental to human health and the environment and should be excluded entirely, those that are acceptable or even “good,” and those that are better for both humans and the environment and should be positively rewarded. It has been gratifying to see some positive changes in the year and a half since we launched – four lenders now have ESG policies that didn’t before; many lenders are responding to Aceli’s incentives by proactively looking for businesses that are gender inclusive, youth inclusive, contribute to food security and nutrition, or promote regenerative and circular agricultural practices that qualify for our impact bonuses. Aceli is only one actor in an ecosystem of organizations trying to make African agriculture more prosperous and sustainable. I am happy to be playing a small part.