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Producers Direct: Transforming Food Systems from the Grassroots

A sustainable, future-proofed food system powered by the next generation of farmers.

Photo of Katie Messick Maddox
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Producers Direct: an award winning enterprise led by farmers, for farmers that works through a network of 1 million smallholders globally.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Kayonza Tea Growers Cooperative: Kayonza is located in the heart of Kanungu County, Uganda and is 100% owned by 7,000 smallholders. Kayonza’s impressive commitments to conserving biodiversity, combating climate change and improving smallholders’ incomes are showcased as winners of the UN Equator Initiative. We’ve been working with Kayonza’s leadership and their Youth Innovation Hub for 10+ years. Global Resilience Partnership (GRP): We have worked with GRP since 2015 to strengthen resilience for smallholders. GRP is committed to improving the impact of resilience initiatives and sharing lessons learnt globally. Restless Development Uganda: The youth-led development agency and partner since 2016 who will promote youth leadership in our vision and provide links to key stakeholders and policymakers. Stockholm Resilience Centre: who will conduct transdisciplinary research assessing impacts of scaling-up climate resilience in local food systems.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United Kingdom

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Kanungu District

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Farmer-led design and co-creation is central to our model. In Kanungu we've worked with smallholder farming communities over the last 11 years to co-create solutions to challenges they face, supporting 7,000 smallholders to: strengthen resilience, increase incomes, particularly for youth/women, improve food/nutrition security, promote sustainable production & safeguard biodiversity. 

We received funding from Comic Relief (2009 - 2016), Global Resilience Partnership (2016 - 2020), GHR Foundation (BridgeBuilder Challenge 2018) & World Bank (2018 - 2020) to support work with Kayonza. Kayonza’s commitment to biodiversity is showcased by a 2015 UN Equator Initiative award. 

Together with Kayonza, we launched a Centre of Excellence in 2016 focused on Climate Change Adaptation, providing smallholder producers access to in-person and digital: 

- Training (climate adaptation, crop diversity)

- Financing (rotating loans to implement what was learnt in trainings)

- Markets (for sustainably produced food)

- Data (pioneering digital tools for smarter decision making)

Kayonza’s Centre of Excellence is part of a global network of 7 Centres. 

We work directly with Kayonza’s community leaders to develop joint work-plans, including with a network of >35 Youth Leaders. Youth are leading in transforming food systems, aggregating and selling fresh produce, including several hundred bunches of bananas and ~10,000 pineapples in 2019. 

The region faces severe challenges linked to: Unpredictable climates (erratic, extreme rainfall or drought), Deforestation - encroaching on the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest - one of the oldest, most biodiverse forests globally, home to >50% of the world’s mountain gorillas, Food /nutrition insecurity, Poverty, and Population growth paired with aging farmer population & growing unemployed youth population.

We are empowering smallholders to manage diverse, sustainable food systems, strengthening resilience and safeguarding the future of food and planet.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Within the Kangu community we've worked with over 7,000 families over the past 11 years, who play diverse roles within the community. We asked Youth Leader, Kenneth, who has lived in Kanungu for his entire 32 years, and has worked with us for the last 4 years why his home is special. He replied, “Kanungu is unique because of The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest - home of the Mountain Gorillas. It is also endowed with rich fertile soils and beautiful fauna and flora. Kanungu is surrounded by 3 great rivers - Munyaga, Ntengyere & Ishasha - all key for irrigation and improved food production”. Kenneth spoke about the importance of engaging youth leaders and strengthening food production systems sustainably to address a rapidly growing population and erratic weather, whilst also safeguarding local forests and fragile ecosystems. 

We’ve been working with youth like Kenneth for several years to develop a sustainable food brand that sells products into local markets in Kanungu, as well as links up with partner smallholder-owned cooperatives in other parts of Uganda, Kenya & Tanzania - as we work across the region to shift power dynamics to the grassroots and galvanise youth to lead future food systems.

Kanungu is in south-western Uganda and is known for lush green forests, premium tea and coffee, and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Like much of Uganda, the county is rural and most people depend on rainfed, subsistence agriculture. Tourism is critical to the local economy, but it is unpredictable because of the history of instability and violence in neighbouring DRC. 270,000 people live in Kanungu county. Like the rest of the country, it is a young and growing population.

The local language is Rukiga Runyankore. The local diet depends on cassava, karo (millet flour), posho with beans, matoke, sweet potatoes, and beans. Most households do not have surplus to sell into local markets. Because of the mountainous terrain and weak linkages to larger cities, market access is difficult for non-cash crops. People do purchase maize flour, rice and ground nuts at local shops. 

Our work has historically focused on partnerships with the Kayonza Tea Growers Cooperative and their Youth and Women’s groups. Kayonza’s tea fields are 5,800 feet above sea level. The coop is committed to supporting its 7,000 families (indirectly benefiting over 30,000 people, 10% of Kanungu’s population). Kayonza supports smallholders to: practice climate-smart farming, diversify their farms and crops to promote biodiversity, strengthen resilience, engage youth in farming as leaders in market systems & pioneering digital tools, decrease dependence on a single cash crop, & improve food and nutrition security. 

Together, we’ve launched exciting initiatives including a reforestation project that will enable 7,000+ members to each plant a minimum of 100 trees. We’ve also launched a diversification initiative to promote diverse food systems, and we are providing market linkages led by youth leaders who are aggregating surplus produce for local and national sales. 

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.


Environment: Climate change continues to be one of the greatest risks facing Kanungu, with 95% of respondents in a recent survey stating the climate has changed dramatically in the last decade. Key changes include erratic rainfall, hail, high winds, & drought. Changing weather patterns continue to have devastating impacts on agriculture & food production, negatively impacting food/nutrition security, livelihoods and household incomes. Because most agriculture is rain-fed, erratic rainfall and drought can be devastating. 

Diets: Diets consist of plantains, starchy roots like sweet potatoes or cassava and cereals including millet, maize and sorghum. Leafy greens from kitchen gardens and nuts are also key. Protein  - like most of rural Uganda - remains low. 

Economics: Agriculture and tourism are key, noting there are significant challenges to access larger markets because of Kanungu’s remoteness. Uganda remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with annual growth remaining stagnant driven by adverse weather, poor outcomes of public projects and unrest in neighboring countries. 

Culture: Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world, with 80% of the population < 30. It’s expected the country will remain young as they also have one of the highest fertility rates in the world. The population is expected to triple from 2010 to 2050, placing significant pressure on food systems and agricultural production - particularly sustainable production. Smallholders remain marginalised from structured food value chains.

Tech: Although ICT has been attributed with catalysing potential economic rebounds at a national level, many gains have yet to be realised in rural areas like Kanungu that have limited connectivity.  

Policy: Uganda suffers from a poor democracy, high unemployment - particularly youth under/unemployment, high dependency ratios, and weak political institutions. President Museveni has been in power since 1986. 


- Erratic and changing weather patterns will present significant challenges for smallholders dependent on rain-fed agriculture, with the greatest impact on farmers’ incomes, resilience, food productivity, & household food security. Changing weather patterns paired with broken, untransparent food value chains that marginalise smallholders could have devastating effects on food systems. 

- Poverty has increased in Uganda in recent years, with increases in the number of Ugandans falling back into poverty. High poverty impacts food security. Economics and security will continue to be negatively impacted by the growing population and high fertility rates, as well as youth unemployment.

- Regional instability (South Sudan, DRC) and weak institutions may thwart growth efforts and distract investments into sustainable agriculture. This paired with growing youth populations has the potential of exacerbating unemployment and creating large cohorts of disillusioned young people.  

- Risk of conflict between land for food production & biodiversity conservation, as pressure mounts to enhance food production and smallholders look to currently protected forest areas. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our Vision addresses aforementioned interlinked challenges - noting these challenges are unique to Kanungu County, Uganda, yet apply to many rural smallholder counties across Uganda, and the rest of East Africa: 

- Climate change and its detrimental impact on rainfed agriculture and efforts to increase food production. 

- Population growth and its negative impact on rural economies unable to support growing youth populations seeking employment, as well as risks for unsustainable food systems.

- Increased drive on sustainable food production to safeguard fragile ecosystems and challenges sustainable, climate-smart agriculture faces with limited market buy-in or benefits to smallholder producers.

- Smallholders excluded from formal, structured food value chains and links to broken, corrupt and untransparent food systems, locally in Kanungu - but also at a national level.

- Growing poverty and risks of falling back into poverty.

- Limited surplus volumes, poor quality produced by smallholders, which will become a detrimental challenge to advancements in food/nutrition security and livelihoods if left unchecked as the population continues to grow. 

Our Vision responds interconnected, systemic challenges facing food systems in Kanungu County that have the potential to be applied to rural smallholder communities across Uganda and the rest of East Africa by:  

- Creating financial incentives for smallholders to produce food sustainably, recognising market incentives do not currently encourage smallholders to produce sustainably.

- Driving farmer and youth leadership to catalyse systemic change at scale, starting initially in Kanungu and looking to scale nationally and regionally.   

- Providing in-person and digital training necessary to improve sustainable production - increasing the quality and volumes of food produced, ensuring smallholders produce surplus volumes for growing populations and increased incomes. 

- Supporting smallholders to strengthen resilience to changing climates, supporting smallholders to respond proactively to rapidly changing climates and food/nutrition needs at the household level. 

- Creating job opportunities for growing youth populations in the agriculture sector, addressing youth under/unemployment and increasing poverty linked to population growth. 

- Utilising pioneering digital tools to realise our vision, harnessing progress in the ICT sector in Uganda and young people’s interest in utilising digital tools, ensuring smallholders are owners and users of the data they produce. 

- Driving impact investment directly into cooperatives and smallholder-led food systems. 

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Our vision is one where smallholders are empowered to co-create and realise their own visions. 

Imagine this prosperous and thriving rural smallholder community. Smallholders are profiting from farming sustainably and responsibly. And they are part of structured value chains driven by youth from their community. Youth are earning an income from this. They are proud of their work. Smallholders' incomes continue to rise. 

Although climates continue to change with erratic rainfall patterns, long droughts, heavy rains, high winds, hail or frost - farming families are prepared for this. Youth are helping smallholders install and interpret data from on-farm weather stations. Farmers are collecting on-farm data to analyse productivity, quality, and profit and loss against various climate events and making better decisions as they access and utilise critical data. 

Families are food secure. Parents have sufficient food to feed their families a diverse & nutritious diet. Surplus is being sold locally, nationally and regionally by a growing number of Youth Leaders driving a pro-farmer model. A model that is fair and places farmers at the centre. One where power dynamics have shifted to the grassroots. They are using pioneering digital tools to bundle surplus crops efficiently, package them and deliver them to markets across Uganda. 

All of this coexists peacefully alongside a vast, primeval forest. A home to endangered Mountain Gorillas. Population growth has continued but the forests are no longer used for firewood or agricultural land. Families no longer see Gorillas as competition for limited natural resources. 

Previously disillusioned, disaffected and unemployed youth are employed and proud. They have found work as farmers. Or as leaders of a new food brand selling sustainably produced food locally, nationally and regionally. Or as tech and data specialists working directly with farmers to analyse and interpret data, while creating new tools to solve tomorrow’s problems.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Together we will build a sustainable, resilient and future-proofed food system. A system that empowers smallholders and youth as leaders, not passive participants. A system that is scalable well beyond the boundaries of Kanungu County, Uganda - one that has the potential to reach all 500 million smallholders globally and engage all 1.2 billion youth. A model that has the potential to transform global food systems dramatically by placing smallholders and the next generation of farmers at the helm. We will shift market systems and make them work for smallholders and for the planet.

Our vision needs to become a reality - and quickly - if we are going to feed 10 billion people by 2050. The FAO estimates food production needs to increase by 70% to match this rapid population growth. Smallholder farmers produce over 70% of the food consumed globally, and over 80% of the food consumed in the global south, yet few have been invited a seat at the table to participate in discussions about food security, climate change or global security. The time is now to shift how we are thinking and approaching food security. The time is now to recognise who the real experts are and who deserves a voice at the table. 

Visions that are not grower focused simply will not work. 

Visions that don’t engage youth will not work.

It’s time to also recognise that smallholders who are producing all of this food are ageing. In order for any food system to be future-proofed and sustainable the next generation of famers - youth - must be engaged and empowered to lead future food systems. Our vision places rural youth at the forefront. We have identified multiple ways for youth to become engaged - as farmers, as leaders of a food brand selling products locally, nationally and internationally that’s linked to a wider network of youth across East Africa and Latin America, and/or as specialists in pioneering digital tools to transform farming. 

Our vision will transform life in Kanungu County. And it has the potential to be scaled across the globe. We are already working with youth and smallholders in other pockets of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and across the world in Peru on this vision. We are working through smallholder-owned cooperatives, women’s groups and youth groups. And we are ready to scale this out and have a truly transformational impact on global food systems, whilst also solving youth unemployment, strengthening livelihoods for smallholders, and building resilience for smallholder communities globally.  

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • OpenIDEO contacts, as a winner of 2018 BridgeBuilder, Participation in SOCAP 2019


Join the conversation:

Photo of Itika Gupta

Hi Katie Messick Maddox  Great to see you joining the Prize!

We noticed your submission is currently unpublished. Was this your intention? We'd love to have your submission included in the Prize. Even if you've not started populating your Vision just yet, by publishing your submission you can make it public for other teams in your region to see, get in touch and possibly even collaborate with you.

You can publish it by hitting the "Publish" button at the top of your post. You can also update your Vision at any time before 31 January 2020 by clicking on the "Edit Contribution" on top. If you need inspiration or guidance, take a look at the Food Vision Prize Toolkit.
Here is the link to the Prize Toolkit:

Look forward to seeing your Vision evolve through the coming weeks.

Photo of Katie Messick Maddox

Hi Itika, Thanks so much for your comment! We have now completed all the required sections and have published our submission. We'll use the next few days to make some updates and changes! I'll be sure to reference the Prize Toolkit again - thank you! Best, Katie