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The Mama Ada Foundation

We connect small scale farmers in western Kenya with improved technology and critical information to ensure food security through the year.

Photo of Julie Keller

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No single existing technology offers a life-altering panacea to disseminate information to African smallholder farmers. Real progress toward sustainable improvement in rural livelihoods requires a holistic, participatory, systems approach from the ground up. Our idea is to develop and perfect the Participatory Farming Diagnostics Constraints (PFCD) tool. Having used this community-empowering tool to diagnose farming issues with three local committees in western Kenya, our organization will now implement a pilot project that partners with farmers to implement changes recommended in the diagnostic phase from August 2015. We envision that this tool will eventually be available to farmers in countries outside Kenya (after pilot project phase), where small scale farmers need access to information - not only to "diagnose" their local-specific issues but also to make productive changes in their farming practices. Moreover, it is anticipated that this tool could be eventually available to farmers on an application available via cell phones (prevalent in Kenya and other parts of Africa), mitigating the need for any outside team to enter a community and instead to provide a clear and cost-effective tool for farmers to access information and implement solutions themselves. A preliminary and crucial first step, however, is to develop and test this tool throughout a pilot project in order to perfect its capacity to connect farmers and to provide information and access to markets.


Beneficiaries initially will be farmers of communities served by The Mama Ada Foundation in Kenya, with additional farmers to benefit as program scales; local leaders will benefit from empowerment in administering and designing project. Agribusiness partners, as well as nonprofit organizations and universities/colleges, are expected to gain new insights about barriers to technology adoption and optimal products and services in the field.


This idea will be initially implemented in Kenya's Upper Rift Valley Region, with plans to scale out to a larger geographic area in Kenya and beyond.


  • Yes


  • I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for over a year


  • Yes, for more than one year.


The Mama Ada Foundation is a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization that provides economic empowerment opportunities to people living in Kenya’s Rift Valley. You can learn more about us at Our story began when a woman named Mama Ada traveled to visit family in Minnesota!


Yes! When we founded our organization, together with partners in Kenya, we initiated a program to provide seeds/fertilizer to small-scale farmers. To be sure, this simple program has helped stabilize a geographic area around Ziwa (a village in western Kenya). However, our organization has been extremely cognizant that this program could eventually foster dependencies for our services on the part of farmers (even as it is effective crisis management) that run counter to the farmers having the opportunity to realize a dignified, long-term self-sufficiency. This agriculture pilot project takes a holistic view at the obstacles the farmers face to agricultural and economic self-sufficiency and offers them the opportunity to genuinely overcome these obstacles (through training, demonstration plots, etc.); it is not a "band-aid solution" but rather provides understanding for long-term agricultural prosperity that means our organization eventually will not be needed by the farmers. It is thus our long range plan to scale out to other areas, as independence is achieved by our current partners in three local communities. (Photo of Ada with Mama Ada Ag Team in August 2015)


Relationships, in the U.S. and in Kenya. We have strong relationships with Kenyan locals and potential partners from a cross-section of businesses, education institutions and churches; over time, we have fostered many connections and we hope to coalesce these relationships now to realize this agriculture pilot project. We have an established relationship with Syngenta, a large agribusiness company; Syngenta Foundation has expressed great interest in working with us and worked with our team in August 2015 in Nairobi, Kenya. We have had conversations with reps from Purdue University, Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota (including the Humphrey School and agriculture department), as well as a number of companies in the Twin Cities (an agricultural hub in the U.S. and globally). We have had significant support from the Anglican Church in Kenya, as well as the Episcopal Church in the U.S. Our vision now is to bring a cross-section of interdisciplinary supporters to this project, to work together in an "incubator" to find long-term solutions to ag issues that provide learning to a cross-disciplinary team of supporters that in turn inform the path to global food security.


Our organization has grown over the past 7 years because many volunteers (in Kenya and U.S.) have given their time, talent, knowledge and hearts. In fact, one of our new partners - - recently interviewed Julie Keller, president, to get ideas for a national webinar on how to recruit devoted and effective volunteers - they had been so impressed with our volunteers! We are building an administrative structure, as well, which will include a paid project coordinator in Kenya.


The very essence of this idea provides a structure in which beneficiary feedback will continually be incorporated into an ag pilot project to be tested and scaled to a broader geographic area in the Eldoret region of Kenya. The Mama Ada Ag Team of five independent ag experts - including three Kenyans and funded by Syngenta's Good Growth Plan - provided ample feedback from meetings with the beneficiary farmers that was incorporated into our current ideas for the structure of an ag pilot project. Going forward, we anticipate that many collaborators in the U.S., Kenya and other countries will provide a continuous feedback loop with beneficiaries, making certain that this project is always adjusting to and incorporating new knowledge into its partnership with local communities in Kenya. One simple and profound example of local beneficiary feedback is our Kenyan partners' determination of the specific three communities in which to initiate the pilot project, the fact that the Mama Ada Advisory Council in Kenya will supervise a pilot project coordinator there, as well as the extremely positive and productive relationship between the Mama Ada Advisory Council and the U.S. board.


There are unanswered questions about our idea, which is why we need the opportunity to implement this pilot project. We have seen the Participatory Farming Diagnostics Constraints tool in the initial stages of community interaction (when our Mama Ada Ag Team visited these communities last summer). However, we must achieve the opportunity to develop the tool as it moves to designing solutions to problems identified in the initial stages. We are also uncertain how the tool could be transferred to a cell phone app, but we are confident that with our partners we will develop this capacity in time. Rather than a "quick fix", however, it will be a quality, well-conceived product.


We thought about this answer for a long time and it honestly seems complicated for 700 characters. We would say there must not have been the empowering relationships, the financial resources and the cutting edge information in this geographic area for the farmers to lift themselves out of poverty through productive farms. Coinciding with these "lacks", the past 20 years these farmers have also endured external "shocks", insofar as they have struggled mightily with AIDS in their communities and with excessive rains and lack of rain. We believe this project brings the right mix of relationships and cutting edge information, if we are able to raise the necessary funding.


Our hope is that this idea will provide information and a tool that ultimately reaches a broad geographic area in Kenya (and might be applied to other countries too). We are always balancing this long-term vision with short-term action steps. Our first step is to fully implement this pilot project in three local communities in Kenya; to do so, we must raise funding for the project. Our challenge is to communicate effectively to others this short term pilot project with a long-term dream.


  • More than a year


  • Within 50 km of where our team does most of its work


  • Between $100,000 and $500,000

Idea Background and Overview

The idea proposed here is built on the assertion that no single existing or new technology offers a life-altering panacea to provide information for African smallholder farmers.

Our idea to disseminate information is a process tool, rather than a new piece of equipment or a specific agricultural practice. It is technology in a different sense. The tool that has been designed and must be implemented and perfected is the Participatory Farming Constraints Diagnostic, a carefully planned, participatory, gender-sensitive and systems tool to identify and understand major location-specific constraints, challenges and risks as perceived by farmers (men and women) and as observed in the field by an interdisciplinary team of experienced rural and agricultural development specialists.

To give some background, for several years we had been operating a simple program that served to stabilize an area in Kenya's Upper Rift Valley Region by providing seeds and fertilizer to impoverished small-scale farmers.  Since our organization's inception in 2009, our long-term vision had been to implement an agriculture pilot project that was comprehensive and sustainable, in order to truly partner with farmers to bring year-round food security to their families.  

Then, in 2014 our organization won the top award for Syngenta's 2014 Big Idea Prize (given by their Good Growth Plan).  The major premise was to design a team of five independent ag experts to travel to Mama Ada's community in Kenya (as well as two other local communities) to work with local communities to learn more about their farming environs and to design simple solutions that bring food security to their areas.

We began by recruiting two experienced agricultural development professionals (Steve Clarke and Lewis Kamiri) to design the Participatory Farming Constraints Diagnostic (PFCD) - a participatory, gender-sensitive and systems process to identify and understand major location-specific constraints, challenges and risks as perceived by smallholder farmers in Africa (men and women) and as observed in the field by an interdisciplinary team of experienced rural and agricultural development specialists.

After developing this tool, Clarke and Kamiri in turn recruited three Kenyans to form a strong interdisciplinary team with diverse skills, including agronomy, soils, livestock, horticulture, agribusiness, marketing, community development, and farmer groups. Their five-person team (bios attached) deployed in August 2015 and interacted with local farmers and agricultural organizations in the three communities during an intensive two-week period.

Key components of the PFCD tool included: (1) walk-arounds with farmers of their farms (shambas) to observe firsthand current practices and the biophysical environment in which the farming systems are embedded; (2) individual household interviews using a standardized farmer survey customized to the region and context; (3) visits and meetings with local agricultural research, extension, educational, market linkage and development organizations with relevant experience and knowledge; and, (4) group discussions with farmers and local leaders both at the time of the team’s arrival in the community and at the end when findings and options for addressing key constraints were discussed together.

Through the use of the PFCD tool, the team learned a considerable amount in the short span of two weeks and gained a fairly deep understanding of the nature of farming systems of smallholder farmers in these western highlands, and especially the constraints, challenges and risks they face. In the team’s general view, these problems are not insurmountable. On the contrary, there is significant room for improvement for increasing crop and livestock productivity and for generating more cash for farm households. And most exciting, the team identified practices and inputs that are relatively simple, accessible and affordable and which for the most part are within the resources and skill sets of these farm families, given modest levels of training and support.

Upon return, the team developed 10 preliminary recommendations that will enable smallholder farmers to make significant improvements in achieving food security year-round and producing income to buy additional food as needed as well as to cover critical expenses (school fees, medical costs, family obligations, other household expenses). In addition, farmers can achieve increased income to invest in productive assets to make their farms financially viable.

Based on the team's findings through the use of the PFCD tool, we are designing a comprehensive pilot project that will connect smallholder farmers in Uasin Gishu and Nandi Counties with the critical information, improved technologies, support services and markets they need to sustainably transition from subsistence agriculture to more business- and market-oriented farming that in turn enables them to increase incomes, ensure food security throughout the year, and significantly improve the livelihoods and well-being of their families. 

Multi-Year Pilot Project

Planning is now underway to take the entire set of Mama Ada Ag Team recommendations and design a multi-year pilot project. Additional recommendations (to those above) include: maize marketing; dairy production; indigenous chickens; market-oriented horticultural crops; and farmer groups. However, we are requesting immediate funding for the aforementioned steps, as these activities can be implemented as soon as funds are available, thusly strengthening outcomes for farmers for the current growing season.

Pilot Project Objectives

  1. Build a coordinated network of smallholder farmer groups in the three initial communities selected for the pilot to enable connections to each other (peer learning-mentoring) and to external resources including information, training and markets, using mobile phone and other digital technologies to the extent possible.
  2. Develop a program of demonstration fields, on-farm trials, trainings, field trips etc. to help the farmer groups, including women and youth, connect to sources of information and expertise that will help them improve and diversify the productivity, production and profitability of their farm enterprises.
  3. Link farmer groups to market opportunities and help them learn to deliver timely, reliable and consistent supplies of high-quality, higher-priced farm products in response to market demand and requirements.

Anticipated Timeline

Year 1 (2016): Design and support implementation of pilot project, working with the three local communities; evaluate results and revise-improve pilot project based on results and experience.

Year 2 (2017): Guide, support and evaluate implementation of pilot project for the second year; prepare and distribute an evidence-based Handbook on the PFC tool as widely as possible in both the Kenyan and international development community.

Year 2 (2017) and Year 3 (2018): Begin program expansion in additional local communities of Kenya’s Rift Valley by replicating the pilot project in other local communities in service area.

Priority Activities Related to Pilot Project Objectives

Those immediate and necessary activities for agriculture pilot project, for which we request funding include:

Establishment of demonstration plots: Sites will be established in each of the three participating local communities that show best practices for key crops such as maize, possibly a grain legume (important for crop rotation and soil fertility) as well as selected vegetables. The Mama Ada Foundation will support the cost of inputs and related expenses but the labor will be provided by the sponsored farmers and other local people.

Training sessions: It is anticipated that training sessions will be held every two to four weeks at these demonstration sites and farmers who receive seeds from The Mama Ada Foundation will attend these training sessions. Farmers will be invited to bring samples of diseased leaves or insect pests or other problems found within their maize or other crops to these sessions for identification or for transfer to specialists at the University of Eldoret, KALRO/KARI or elsewhere for identification and recommendations on control. These sessions will also provide practical, specialized training on livestock issues, group formation, leadership, simple business and book-keeping, etc. from many resources.

Soil testing: This has recently been done (in each of three current communities) and we are currently evaluating results.  However, we request funding for additional soil testing.  Very few farmers served by The Mama Ada Foundation have ever had their soil tested. Yet, it is important to know the levels of major plant nutrients such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) as well as soil acidity (pH) in order to know what kinds and amounts of fertilizers to apply, and whether action needs to be taken to reduce the acidity (raise pH), which would make the nutrients in those fertilizers more available to the plants and increase yields as a result. The team recommends that each of the three local demo plots and 6-10 farms in each of the three communities be sampled and analyzed by a reputable soil testing service (CNLS, University of Eldoret, or KALRO in Kitale) to decide on the fertilizers to use (or lime) to serve as a baseline to evaluate future management of these plots. Additional soil tests will be conducted every three years thereafter.

Maize postharvest handling and storage: The team recommends that one of the training sessions described in #2 above be devoted to postharvest handling and storage of maize, including proper stooking, de-husking, drying, shelling, cleaning, further drying, and storage. The team believes that the PICS system of triple-bag storage (100 kg capacity) is now a proven technology in Kenya and should be adopted by farmers as it is low-cost (250 KSH/triple bag) and can safely store dry maize as well as other crops for long periods of time. Farmers can receive a high rate of return on this small investment, but it only makes sense if storage is for more than 3-4 months. For maize that is going to be sold shortly after harvest, there is no need for this kind of storage system. Informal groups will be formed to organize a collective order of bags for seed that requires storage.  This activity will certainly be geared and critical to minimize post-harvest loss. 

Establishment of Agricultural Information Centres: The team recommends that a Mama Ada Ag Info Centre be created at each of the three demonstration plots. This small room or modest-sized structure will be used to hold and display an ever-growing collection of fact sheets, posters and other written technical information in Swahili on crops, livestock, horticulture, soils, marketing, etc. relevant to western Kenyan smallholder farming. Many of these materials are available from KALRO/KARI and the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock extension services as well as agro-vets, ag-chemical and seed companies, development NGOs and others. The Daily Nation’s Saturday edition with the Seed of Gold agricultural section, the Smart Farmer and similar magazines are also good sources of practical, up-to-date information. These could be collected over time by farmers (especially lead farmers/farmer-leaders), The Mama Ada Foundation local committee members, and other friends of the Foundation and added to the information base available to Mama Ada farmers. Although many farmers and others the team spoke with during the trip complained about the lack of information available to farmers, the team believes the real problem is the limited extent to which smallholder farmers seek out and find the information they need. The team found that there were substantial amounts of good information available from a variety of sources, but that farmers were not accessing it. Farmers need to be encouraged to be more proactive in seeking out that information but the Foundation can help by identifying sources of good information and bringing that information in the direction of farmers, hence the purpose of the proposed Ag Info Centres. 

Total requested: $60,000

Seeds, fertilizer and other ag inputs for small-scale farmers: $10000

Demonstration plots: $6000

Training sessions: $8000

Soil testing: $1000

Maize post harvest handling and storage: $4000

Agriculture information centres: $6000

Project Coordinator (in-country):  $25,000

Friends and Supporters

We are currently organizing a group called Ada's Roundtable (description attached to this proposal) which will serve as an "engine" for this pilot project - in terms of providing fundraising support and ag expertise.  Steve and Lewis are also most generously donating their time to lead this project forward. 

The head of Syngenta in North America, Ponsi Trivisvavet, sits on our organization's board.  We also are speaking with motivated contacts in various companies and universities, such as Land O' Lakes, Cargill, the University of Minnesota (including the Humphrey Institute and agriculture professors/researchers) and the University of St. Thomas and Augsburg College.  We have significant interest in this project from the Regional Director of Syngenta Foundation in Nairobi, George Osure (who hosted the Mama Ada Ag Team last August in their Nairobi offices)).  And, we have identified potential partners including Purdue University and CTI (Compatible Technology International; we will initiate discussions with these entities as funding is available, though our contact with Purdue has already been significant and productive.

Innovation and Scalability

There is great excitement that is growing from these friends and supporters about this pilot project and the emergence of an extremely innovative diagnostics tool that can be replicated and scaled to other parts of Africa and beyond.

Our organization's Kenyan operating structure contains the capacity for scalability of an innovative pilot project.  The overarching governance body in Kenya is the Mama Ada Advisory Council (which is housed within the Anglican Eldoret Diocese).  The three local communities referenced through the proposal have highly-functional Local Mama Ada Committees that operate out of local Anglican churches.  It must be noted that program beneficiaries do not need to be Christian, or any faith, to receive assistance from our organization. 

The Anglican Church is an already-existing operational structure within Kenya; it has a highly esteemed and trusted reputation among people in the country and can serve as a structure to realize scalability.  There are currently 60 plus churches within the Eldoret Anglican Diocese, which could house Local Mama Ada Committees (to implement expansion of agriculture pilot project) as our pilot project is tested and achieves success. 

Evaluation/Impact Measurement

Of most importance, any Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Plan will utilize local feedback.  Our organization has an advantage in getting this feedback from local people, due to our very strong and long relationships with local people and leaders in Kenya.  They will certainly be a part of any evaluation plan (including its development), as we have the finances and capability to develop the plan outline (below).  Of course, it will be critical to show that farmers have access to this tool and information; again, it is our very strong relationships (and well-known and respected reputation in a large area in Kenya, including our local committee structure that can be replicated) that will enable us to reach more farmers than a new or foreign-based organization could do.

The Mama Ada Foundation will finalize a Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Plan prior to pilot project launch with assistance from a consultant with expertise in small-scale farmer development projects. The monitoring component will involve the systematic and routine collection of information to check progress against work plans, to document results/impact measurement and local experiences. The data will also be used to assist the evaluation process.

The Foundation will conduct periodic evaluations as certain phases of the project are completed. These evaluations will be designed to provide the necessary information for strategic decisions and project improvement going forward (including an "exit strategy" for each local community that is based on the achievement of pre-determined, locally designed objectives that indicate "self-sufficiency" has been achieved by a set number of farmers in that particular community).

For this pilot project, MAF will base its M&E plan on the World Bank’s Handbook for Development Practitioners and include outputs, outcomes, impacts and indicators.

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Attachments (6)

IDEO User Experience Map (Autosaved).docx

A map that outlines the basic experience of a farmer in this pilot project.

Ada's Roundtable Description.pdf

A description of a group that will support the development of this pilot project.

MAF Pilot Project Annex 1.doc

A list of recommendations for pilot project made by five-person team of ag experts (including three Kenyan people) who visited our farm friends and partners in Eldoret region of Kenya in August 2015.

Ag Team Bios 2015.pdf

Bios of the five-person ag team that visited our farm friends and partners in Kenya in August 2015. Our organization won the grand prize for Syngenta's Big Idea Contest in 2014, which enabled us to send this independent team of experts to explore the farming conditions in the Eldoret region and to conceive possible solutions to agriculture health and productivity, in turn ensuring long-term food security for small-scale farm families.

MAF Pilot Project Summary.pdf

A summary of the pilot project currently in development.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Chioma Ume

Hi Julie,

The Amplify team and our experts have some feedback for you:

The submission present a very good idea and I think you should work to ease access for smallholder farming households. I will also suggest that the content be carried in local languages and presented in a simple format that user can comprehend with space for feedback. Have you thought about you will collect feedback?

What makes this app different than others existing in Kenya? How will it generate and organize the potential solutions to the problems?

If the application cannot yet be access via mobile phone, how then is the rural farmer going to access it? What is your plan to increase access?

How does this idea help reduce post harvest losses?

Looking forward to learning more! 

Photo of Julie Keller

Dear Bahenda Joseph, Yes, the emphasis is on training and monitoring, to be sure.  The PFCD is a tool in development that will enable communities to discover a holistic range of issues that constrain their community's agriculture productivity and health, most basically; in addition, it is a bundle of programs (that will be specific to different locales, depending on their particular needs) that then address these constraints.   Do you see common elements to our work with your work; if so, we would love to hear more!  Thank you for reaching out to us!  Julie 

Photo of Bahenda Joseph

Great idea Jullie Keller.
Basically you put emphasis on training and monitoring, don't you? I think we can explore areas of partnership even though The Participatory Farming Diagnostics Constraints (PFCD) is not clear to me. Do you apply statistics, a mobile app or you have a bundle of programs that you use to empower these farmers?



Photo of Vegetable Resource Centre

Hello Julie,
Your idea seems to connect with VRC project. Could we explore areas for possible partnership? You can read more about VRC at

Photo of Julie Keller

Hello!  Your work sounds very interesting and we would love to speak with someone from your organization!  A phone call might be best and we could be reached at 952.856.5746.  We wish you all the best in the contest, as well!   Julie Keller

Photo of Vegetable Resource Centre

Thank you Julie. VRC will pass the communication on to one of our representatives. We are hopeful that something good will come forth from your conversation that will contribute greatly to the success of our project. We look forward to collaborating with such organizations. VRC wish you success in this challenge!

Photo of Paul Cook

Hi Julie, thanks for posting your ideas.  I'm curious, what farming issues specifically will you be diagnosing via the tool?  Have you found that farmer's don't know that they have an issue or need tailored information or something else entirely?  I work with farmers in Western Kenya, so I look forward to hearing your perspective.   Thanks, Paul

Photo of Julie Keller

Hi Paul, It is great to hear from you, as you work in western Kenya too!  Quite basically, the issues that  have been and will be explored with the farmers are many, being holistic in nature - moving all the way from planting seeds in a field to connecting to a market to replanting a field the next year.  Some of the issues explored are and will be soil testing/health; best practices for key crops such as maize, possibly grain legumes and selected veggies, as well as weed management.  There will be information shared with the farmers regarding maize harvest and post handling/storage.   I am the president of our organization, but I could connect you with the two team leads of our ag group that visited the farmers in Kenya last August.  Please let me know if you would like to speak with these ag experts, and they could give you much more complete information about the issues!  I know they would be happy to speak with you, to learn from you as well.  Julie

Photo of Paul Cook

Hi Julie, it's great you are taking such a holistic approach. We've identified similar issues.  Best of luck with the challenge!  Paul

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