This farming spokeswoman knows fashion and failures

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Our Foundation recently met the CEO and a member of the Global Farmer Network®. We planned the webinar just for our employees, but it was so good that we’re sharing the highlights. Farmers’ voices need to be heard more! 

Opening the meeting, Mary Boote highlighted the power of “farmer-to-farmer knowledge transfer”. The Syngenta Foundation heartily agrees and promotes such transfer in numerous programs. Learning from other farmers “has been more important than ever during Covid”, Mary added. As the Chief Executive Officer of Global Farmer Network (GFN®), she should know.

The GFN (see footnote*) has grown this century from five Iowan growers to an organization uniting more than 220 farmers across the world. They range from a Kenyan smallholder, farming on 1.5 hectares, to colleagues whose operations cover huge areas of Brazil. But whatever the size of their fields, Mary declares, “farmers must be at the policy discussion table”. Sadly, many politicians and summit organizers overlook that necessity. The GFN exists to remind them and to amplify farmers’ voices in all relevant topic areas. Mary Boote proudly adds: “Our farmers are disruptors!” 

One such GFN member is Patience Koku**. She farms about 100 hectares in Nigeria. A former fashion entrepreneur, Patience ventured into agriculture when looking for a new business opportunity. “It was the best decision I ever made”, she declares. That was not what it looked like at first, however: “I lost lots of money”, Patience admits. “Farming in Nigeria is full of challenges.”

One big breakthrough came thanks to the GFN. In 2018, the network-enabled her to meet Edgard Ramirez, a large-scale grower from Argentina. He was already helping growers in Ghana and Guinea to adopt ‘no-till’ farming***. From Patience’s description, Edgard felt that this approach would also be ideal in many Nigerian settings. He was surprised that it wasn’t already being promoted there. Patience was initially skeptical. “But the top ‘soil guy’ in Nigeria agreed it would work, so I gave it a try.”

Adapting from abroad for a revolution at home

Patience is so happy with the results that she has arranged with the Argentinian no-till association to come and advise other Nigerian farmers. In her profession, “it’s so important to share knowledge – but you have to adapt it to local needs”. The advice won’t be a one-to-one transfer of Latin American solutions but tailored to the Nigerian situation.

“We can sometimes benefit from being a bit ‘behind’”, Patience adds with a wink. “Nigeria doesn’t need to reinvent what other countries started 50 years ago”. Sometimes, all that’s required are open ears and flexibility. She has already shown those herself, for example when seeking guidance from an Indian GFN member on her bananas. “They were dying”, she remembers, “and his advice rescued them.” Patience believes that the bridge has GFN created “could now lead to a no-till revolution”. There is much need: “Today, small Nigerian farmers pay lots of money to contractors who plow and harrow.” The results are often poor, and the farmers are left with related problems such as soil erosion, compaction, or structural damage.  

Whatever the crop or challenge, Patience Koku is “a very strong advocate for what’s best for farmers”. That would, for example, also mean calling for genetically modified planting material if it can benefit Nigerians. In a country with corn (maize) yields of only about a ton per hectare, “every tool in the box is needed”, Patience points out.

The webinar audience asked numerous questions. “What makes a good GFN member?”, one participant wanted to know. Mary Boote described him or her as “a real farmer, who’s tried lots, can explain it well, and is as good at talking about failures as successes.” Asked about the opportunities for young people in farming, Patience exclaimed: “They’re limitless!” The clue is making agriculture profitable. Her main advice for raising income is to look for lucrative new crops or new uses of familiar ones. In the true spirit of GFN membership, she has already done both.  

  • The Global Farmer Network® identifies, trains, empowers and engages farmers of all types and sizes. The GFN® works with partners who share the goals of providing accessible food for all while displaying sustainable farming, environmental responsibility, soil health focus, and carbon awareness. Like the GFN, these partners embrace technology “in a proactive, clear-sighted, practical way”. They understand the value it brings in meeting the challenge of food security compounded by a growing population and climate change. The GFN is currently comprised of 221 female and male farmers representing 60 countries on six continents. It aims to add some 20-50 members annually over the coming years. The network is committed to “amplifying the farmers’ voice in promoting trade, technology, sustainable farming, economic growth, and food security”. It is founded on the concept of connecting farmers around the world and advocating together for the application of science in agriculture, for the benefit of society. The GFN does not lobby or publicly endorse any companies, products, or organizations. It devotes considerable efforts to training members, notably on communication. The training is designed to increase farmers’ confidence as well as competence. For the general public, the multilingual GFN website provides a wide range of material, including virtual farm tours.
  • A “no-till” (non-tillage) cultivation system excludes plowing. Instead, farmers typically place crop-residue mulch on the field surface. This approach is designed to conserve water, prevent erosion, keep lots of organic matter in the soil and suppress weeds. It also reduces farmers’ costs and emissions, as they spend less on tractor fuel, and saves them time for more profitable tasks. 
Mary Boote, CEO Global Farmer Network
Patience Koku