Rayuwa has a simple goal: Eliminate the hunger season

John Deere's Rayuwa project helps educate smallholder farmers on good agricultural practices to increase food production.

In October 2019 a group of John Deere volunteers traveled to villages in Nigeria to participate in harvest season as part of Deere’s Rayuwa project. Rayuwa, which means “life” or “livelihood” in the local Hausa language, helps educate smallholder farmers on good agricultural practices. The goal of the program is to produce more food, and in turn help reduce poverty and hunger while increasing childhood education.

This story provides an overview of Rayuwa. This story and others in the series reflect the period prior to the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

To learn about a country, it’s often best to know the challenges it faces.

For Nigeria, there are several. Population growth, education, and poverty are the weights that slow its progress. Opportunities come in agriculture, an industry shaped by an abundance of land and a willingness to improve.

Here, farming is defined by three seasons.

First is the dry season, something you might expect from a country located in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a time when soil turns to powder as 100-degree days stack one on top of the other, and the sun feels like the ball of fire it resembles.

When it comes to education, Rayuwa is making a difference in the Nigerian villages it serves. Teaching children the alphabet and counting is the first step. Saying the words in English requires a little more concentration.

Next is the rainy season, four months on the calendar so crippling that as rivers swell a substandard infrastructure often bulges, splintering under the stress. Roads become impassible, schools are closed, and farmland, with the sun still set to broil, is transformed into a crusted layer of backbreaking labor.

It is the third season, however, that makes projects like Rayuwa not only admirable, but essential. Beginning in July and running through August, food becomes scarce, neighbors rely on one another for grain, and meals are no longer plural. This is the hunger season.

While there may not be a cure for the first two seasons, there is a plan to eliminate the third – and John Deere is helping lead that effort.

Challenges await

Nigeria is the seventh largest country in the world by population, but in a polygamist culture – one where each man has, on average, three wives – those numbers can quickly multiply. Currently, Nigeria is 130 million people behind the United States. In about 15 years, it will surpass the U.S. and become the third-largest country on the planet despite being about the size of Texas.

A school registration drive at one of the Rayuwa villages drew hundreds of children. Currently, 23 percent of children within the 11 villages attend school on a regular basis.

How, then, do you keep pace with all those mouths to feed when each seed is placed in the ground by hand with rarely a tractor in sight? That is the challenge facing John Deere and its Rayuwa partner PYXERA Global.

The structure of the project has been called a “virtuous cycle.” With John Deere’s knowledge and financial support, coupled with PYXERA Global’s expertise in program development, Rayuwa looks to increase smallholder farmer production, use that income to turn hand-to-mouth agriculture into a sustainable business, help the villages separate from poverty, and, ultimately, use refocused education to train the next wave of farmer. That next wave then continues the cycle.

“This is the gold star project of all the programs our company is currently participating in,” Nate Clark, director of strategic communications at John Deere, said. “It has the full commitment of our business and we have an extraordinary non-profit partner in PYXERA Global. It also incorporates employee volunteers, bringing to the forefront the company’s philosophy of improving the quality of life for people around the world.”

So, if improving living standards for people around the world is Deere’s true goal, Clark asks, where does that take you?

“It takes you to Africa,” he said. “And it takes you to Africa for lots of reasons. But there is none greater than both the potential of Africa to fully nourish itself and help nourish the rest of the world. That opportunity is there. It is within Rayuwa.”

In addition, John Deere and PYXERA Global have established a volunteer platform within Rayuwa, allowing the company’s mission to create a meaningful experience for employees to come to life. In October 2019 a group of Deere volunteers visited some of the villages in the project to assist in the fall harvest.

“We so often think that volunteerism is driving up, dropping off some coats, and driving away. That’s your good deed, and it can be. But Rayuwa puts John Deere employees right in the middle of what making a difference means. You feel like, for a brief moment, you are helping get to the solution.” —Tasneem Barnabas, Human Resources manager Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)

“The goal is to make these opportunities available at least annually, to get different people and to develop and prove our commitment,” Clark said. “There’s no better way to do that than face-to-face with the people who you strive to serve.”

The impact was immediate.

“We so often think that volunteerism is driving up, dropping off some coats, and driving away. That’s your good deed, and it can be,” Tasneem Barnabas, Human Resources manager Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), said. “But Rayuwa puts John Deere employees right in the middle of what making a difference means. You feel like, for a brief moment, you are helping get to the solution.”

As Rayuwa enters its second planting season there are four main objectives for the program.

Agricultural production

Rayuwa’s first objective is to increase farmer production. Because Nigeria gets 90 percent of its food from smallholder farmers – those who cultivate 1-3 hectares of land – their success is essential. And because 99 percent of households in Rayuwa’s 11 villages rely on agriculture for their livelihood resilience is key. One small blip, one tiny setback and families remain in a hole that gets so deep the hope of climbing out is lost.

Liza Herb, PYXERA Global’s key client manager on the project, said the clearest indication help is needed is in the imbalance of imported food versus local output.

“Nigeria imports a ton of food,” Herb said. “The issue becomes that the smallholder farmers are severely underproducing and their vulnerability to numerous factors puts them in a tenuous spot.”

Working daily within the villages involved in the project, Rayuwa staff members helped establish test plots to engage and empower farmers. The plots of maize, sorghum, and cowpea (also known as black-eyed peas) highlighted three variables.

A nutrition garden helps bring Muslim women out from the villages. Rayuwa focuses on “expanding the labor force” by including more women in areas where culture has limited their help in the past.

Farmers were shown good agricultural practices (GAP) that included planting techniques, fertilization, and crop protection. One of the tests involved a more expensive hybrid seed to reinforce the eventual transition from good to better to best.

The improvement in yields – especially from good to best – in some cases was nearly 200 percent. Village farmers were able to see increases in their open-pollination variety (OPV) yields with the GAP changes. The idea is to use some of the profit, over time, to then purchase hybrid seed, making an even more sizeable impact on production.

“It will be in steps,” Lekan Tobe, Rayuwa’s project director, said. “Some steps will be bigger than others. But we need to take them all.”

Commercialize the farm

Turning sustenance into profit is the critical second objective. In a country where mechanization – using a tractor, for example – involves just 7 percent of smallholder farmers the immediate view is not sales for John Deere.

“That’s not the focus,” Jacques Taylor, Deere’s managing director for SSA, said. “First, their operations are so small that it doesn’t make sense. This is a market of leasing tractors.”

Harvest interactions between Deere volunteers, Rayuwa staff, and smallholder farmers proved insightful.

Cobus DuToit, divisional sales manager for West and Central Africa, engaged Olawale Arowolo, monitoring and evaluation officer for Rayuwa, around fertilization methods. DuToit was animated and passionate as the two men stood in the searing heat in a Falgore Village maize field.

“We can’t make farming soft. It can’t all be from here,” DuToit said, pointing to his heart. “It also has to be from here (pointing to his back pocket and his wallet). Kids don’t want this (now pointing to the sweat soaking the armpits of his shirt). If it’s hard, they go inside.”

His point was taken. Mechanizing the farm will make work easier and smarter, keeping younger family members more interested in the living that can be made from working Nigeria’s plentiful land.

A shared value

To make that vision a reality the mechanized farming world, the third objective, must arrive. But there can be no shortcuts, Taylor said.

During the harvest it was clear which ears of maize came from which test plots. Full, thick kernels wrapped in healthy leaves caught every farmers attention. Children also took note.

“Tomorrow’s farmer is here. They are listening and seeing what is happening,” Tobe said.

As the crops were harvested by hand, chopped down with large machetes, the stalks were bundled and taken to a nearby tree where a scale was tied to a branch. Everyone gathered around to see what the strangers were doing and to watch the red needle of the scale move farther and farther down the dial.

Villages like Falgore were also establishing VSLAs (village savings and loan associations), a system to help give the few the power of the many. A single smallholder farmer in a village cannot, would not, be able to expand this operation. But together, dozens of farmers? Creating a savings for villagers to contribute to and then pull from with greatly reduced interest rates is an essential step in the business of farming.

Education teaches all

The final objective of Rayuwa, and the one that makes the virtuous cycle an unending reality, sits in classrooms and under shade trees in nearly every village.

Nearly 80 percent of adult education participants are women as most men choose to stay in the fields during school days. Most, but not all. Ibrihim Madugu, a 60-year-old farmer, chooses to learn alongside his grandchildren.

In Ahmadu a school registration drive brings out hundreds of children. There are but two buildings and four classrooms to house them all. Children sit elbow-to-elbow on the floor, quiet, attentive, and waiting to learn.

Lawal Magaji, a Rayuwa volunteer, knows learning is independence. “With education we don’t depend on someone else. We can depend on ourselves,” he said.

In Ung Bawa adults and children learn at the same location, the children inside a building with no electricity, the adult women around back seated on benches. Out front, under a single, large tree are more children – and Ibrihim Madugu, a 60-year-old farmer who chooses to sit with his grandchildren.

“If you want to learn you have to humble yourself,” Florence Johnson, also known as “Madam Rayuwa” to the villagers, said. Johnson is one of several staff members that have returned home to live in their villages, making Rayuwa a daily priority.

“This is about empowerment. This is about being willing to learn and do the work needed to get to zero hunger. That’s what success will look like -- taking ownership and making Rayuwa sustainable for generations to come.” —Arun Pandey, John Deere’s Region 1 Citizenship program director

Fwanshishak Daniel, Rayuwa’s deputy project manager, takes a measured approach to teaching. “With large class sizes it means you either teach to the last or leave them behind,” he said. “Here, no one gets left behind.”

All the good will, daily planning, hard work, and collaboration doesn’t necessarily guarantee patience. Villagers wondered if more money could be spent by Rayuwa to purchase farm equipment or build new schools.

This is the fine line to walk and where a common message is repeated: Rayuwa cannot create a culture of dependency.

And therein lies the path to success.

“This is about empowerment,” Arun Pandey, John Deere’s Region 1 Citizenship program director, said. “This is about being willing to learn and do the work needed to get to zero hunger. That’s what success will look like — taking ownership and making Rayuwa sustainable for generations to come.”

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Rayuwa has a simple goal: Eliminate the hunger season

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