Youth in Action: Connecting with Kenyan Farmers to Safeguard Their Crops

September 9, 2021

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Peter Kilunda training farmers

This post is part of Marketlinks' and Agrilinks' joint Youth Employment Month. It originally appeared on Agrilinks.

Peter Kilunda, equipped with a supply of face masks and hand sanitizer, was ready to greet his next group of Kenyan farmers. For the past year, his work as a youth promoter with Bell Industries, through the company’s partnership with Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation, had brought him in front of numerous such groups — smallholders interested in learning about and purchasing the company’s Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bags, an innovative grain storage solution that prevents post-harvest loss.

Along with nine other young adults, Peter joined the Bell Industries team as a youth promoter to help the agribusiness adapt its sales and marketing operations in response to COVID-19. Movement and gathering restrictions, among other pressing challenges, had prompted the company to collaborate with the Partnering for Innovation program to pivot how it engages with its network of distributors, retailers and consumers, and to focus on expanding its one-to-one customer sales approach. This effort built on the company’s previous collaboration with Partnering for Innovation from 2013 to 2014, which successfully commercialized PICS bags in the country.

Peter and his fellow youth promoters were essential to this shift, and their efforts paid off by both bolstering the company’s bottom line and developing the promoters’ business skill sets. At the conclusion of the one-year partnership in July 2021, the team achieved what the company’s established sales approach could not have alone given the current COVID climate: more than 10,000 farmers in remote, last-mile areas gained access to PICS bags to prevent post-harvest loss of their crops. Moreover, the company significantly exceeded initial partnership sales expectations by selling over 440,000 PICS bags. More than 23,000 of these bags were sold directly by the youth promoters, revealing a promising new growth area for the company.

Equipped with a company-provided motorbike (to overcome COVID-related transportation obstacles), extensive training and mentorship from the Bell Industries’ sales team and PICS bags and informational materials, the youth promoters connected with farmers in their assigned coverage areas through small group gatherings, at individual farms, and during stops at agrodealer retail locations to replenish bag stock levels and informational materials. An extensive online marketing campaign, using Facebook and SMS text, was also launched to help spread the word about the youth promoter trainings and to offer farmer customers tips for storing their grains. Bell Industries’ further complemented these efforts by piloting the use of an on-demand transportation service to move PICS bags from its warehouse to delivery points in the field, enabling sales agents and youth promoters to efficiently pick up and deliver bags to farmers without delay.

Following social distancing protocols, the youth promoters guided farmers on how using the PICS hermetic bag technology, which does not require the use of pesticides and is an affordable tool to ensure safe storage of their grains for household consumption and to sell surplus production at attractive prices later. This is critically important for Kenyan smallholder farmers, particularly the 90% of rural households that grow maize, a staple food vital to the country’s food security and poverty reduction.

Leading up to the farmer trainings, Peter and his fellow youth promoters worked with Bell Industries’ sales agents to learn everything from how to demonstrate the proper use of PICS bags and explain their advantages, to business-focused negotiation, communication and sales skills. Training also included information on good agriculture practices aimed at increasing productivity, including fertilizer use, crop diversification and pest control, as well as climate-smart agriculture approaches, such as water retention tools and drought-resistant seed varieties.

The efforts of the youth promoters delivered several unexpected benefits beyond the core objective of reaching last-mile farmers with PICS bags. For instance, farmers would not always purchase bags immediately following a training session, opting instead to obtain them at a later time. The youth promoters referred these farmers to the nearest agrodealer location, while also educating sales staff at those locations about the PICS bags so they could promote them and answer questions. Additionally, as the youth promoters traveled throughout their assigned areas with bags, they were able to make the most of any informal sales opportunities that arose, such as at markets.

During a difficult year, the collaboration between Bell Industries and Partnering for Innovation resulted in a creative new sales approach that overcame the immediate challenges of COVID and helped the company secure its foothold in the post-harvest storage market, especially critical as customers scale back their bag purchases or opt for cheaper and lower quality alternatives. At the same, Bell Industries built a promising approach to how it does business, benefitting the company’s bottom line, Kenyan youth and, ultimately, smallholder farmers, in the process.