Nuru International Agriculture Program’s Approach to Crop Diversification

Nuru’s Agriculture Programs in Kenya and Ethiopia have launched crop operations in 2014 holding crop diversification as a central element. What is crop diversification? What are its pros and cons? How is it being deployed in Nuru?

Crop diversification is the practice of producing a variety of crops in a farm enterprise or system. Diversification can be described as horizontal and as vertical. Horizontal diversification means expanding the types of crops being grown. For example, Nuru farmers across Kenya and Ethiopia are or will be growing a total nine different crops through the Agriculture Program. Vertical crop diversification means to expand the amount of activities that take place with particular crops. This could include, for example, grains milling, packaging, or further value addition. Nuru’s current focus is primarily on crop diversification at the horizontal level.

Smallholder farmers in situations of extreme poverty have limited land and labor. The choice of what to grow thus becomes incredibly important. Crop diversification presents distinct advantages and disadvantages as a livelihood strategy.

+ Having many different crops increases resilience to pests, diseases, weeds and aberrant weather.

– While risks from these factors are spread out over a number of crops, the risks are not completely eliminated.

+ The availability of different crops for food can increase household food security and nutrition.

– Depending on crop choices, food security could take precedent over crops for sale and thus reduce available income.

+ Producing a variety of different crops insulates farmers from markets. Even if the sale price of one crop drops, the farmer has other crops that can sell at favorable prices.

– The counterpoint is that the returns to the use of a farmer’s land and labor are variable.

+ Growing diverse crops on farm plots mitigates the environmental impact of mono-cropping.

– A farmer must have or be able to quickly obtain the knowhow to grow and manage different crops well.

Since this mix of pros and cons quickly becomes rather murky waters to navigate, care must be taken to introduce the right combination of crops that maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages.

Nuru farmers in Kenya will be producing maize, brown sorghum, finger millet and grevillea trees. A smaller number of farmers have planted African Birds Eye chili in a joint Nuru Kenya Social Enterprises and Nuru Kenya Ag Program initiative. Each of these crops serves distinct benefits. Maize provides for both household consumption as well as income generation. Sorghum and millet are nutritious foods that store easily and durably. Grevillea trees provide environmental as well as financial benefits over a longer term. Chilis are a cash crop for income generation.

Nuru farmers in Ethiopia will be producing maize and beans, and at a smaller scale orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, taro root, and rice. Similar to Kenya, this mix of crops provides for food security and income generation, with each particular crop presenting unique opportunities for the benefit of farmers.

Nuru’s Agriculture Program introduces crop diversification as a complementary livelihood strategy that helps end hunger, fosters food security, and offers impactful, sustainable and scalable agriculture solutions. The success of the Agriculture Program’s crop diversification strategy hinges on striking a balance between complementary concepts:

  • Risk reduction & smart risk-taking
  • Staple food crops & specialized cash crops
  • Food security & income generation
  • Ease of farmer adoption & behavior change
  • Diversification & intensification

Ultimately, more instructive than juxtaposing one side versus another, the Agriculture Program’s diversification approach embraces and balances both sides to help smallholder farmers develop robust, highly productive and sustainable farm enterprises.

About Matt Lineal

Chief Program Officer — Matt received his BA in Government and Spanish from Lawrence University and a MS in Forest Sciences from Colorado State University, and began his international service career in rural Honduras, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer and later with The Nature Conservancy. Over several years punctuated by severe challenges for Hondurans, his experiences were eye opening as to how people navigate the complexities of rural life. Matt was drawn to Nuru International in 2011 with the resolve to take on tough challenges and has been humbled and amazed to be part of the transformational impact of local leaders. As Nuru’s Chief Program Officer, Matt continues to promote the agency of rural communities as the foundation of meaningful positive change.

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