AfricaLive interviewed Sven Verwiel of L.E.A.F Africa on his ambitions to revolutionise East African agriculture through syntropic agricultural practices popular in Brazil and Costa Rica.
This interview accompanies our case study of Tamalu Farm, a L.E.A.F Africa project in the foothills of Mount Kenya.
- Traditional farming and fishing methods used to be sustainable but now are having a devastating impact on soil, biodiversity and climate.
- Syntropic agroforestry allows for crops to be grown alongside trees, enriching soil and capturing carbon from the atmosphere.
- L.E.A.F Africa is seeking investment partners to set up a $5 million start-up fund to allow detailed bankable business plans required for large scale agri-projects. The company is also launching their new brand ForestFoods, aimed at small & medium acreages, which will require an initial investment of 1M USD.
- There is a need for African universities to collaborate in research projects specific to the African context. Current research coming out on regenerative agriculture focuses on temperate regions not considered similar to Africa.
AfricaLive: What makes up the DNA of L.E.A.F Africa?
Sven Verwiel: We are really inspired by the work that has come out of Brazil over the past forty years.
Before we ever set foot on Brazilian soil, we never actually realised how much of an agricultural powerhouse they are. I believe they are number two or three in the world when it comes to production output just behind the United States and the European Union.
When it comes to tropical agriculture they truly are the pioneers and leaders in the sector.
I’ve grown up my whole life in Kenya but with a Dutch background. The Dutch, much like the Israelis, have a really strong agricultural background. However, I find that when you have lots of Dutch and Israeli people working here you need to remember their landscapes are totally different.
You can’t compare Israel or Holland to Africa; Israel is a desert and Holland has a temperate climate. Both countries are incredible in the agriculture sector but I do find a lot of the knowledge isn’t relevant for this climate.
It was amazing opening our eyes in Brazil. So much of the Brazilian agro-scape is fitting to the African one. If you took the map of Brazil and laid it over East, Central and parts of Southern Africa you have very similar biomes.
It felt extremely comforting to see this. If the Brazilians can do it, surely we Africans can do it.
Brazil, therefore, is in our DNA. L.E.A.F Africa is definitely a local company but we have a huge amount of our influence from Brazil.
The most important change of this decade across the agri space must lie in understanding our soils better.
As custodians of borrowed land from our children and grandchildren, we need to get well versed in understanding the microbial life in our soils so that we can either restore it where it has been depleted or maintain and improve it where it still exists. This will unlock the biggest change in our current agronomy skillset; farming that relies on the evolutionary relationship between plants, animals, and the microbial life in the soils that make every nutrient available for a healthy ecosystem to thrive.
Sven Verwiel: Yes, we work with BrazAfric, which is run by my business partner Marcos, and have been active on the ground for over 25 years in Africa. We also represent a Brazilian company called Campo.
L.E.A.F Africa is very young, we were founded in 2019 and we have a couple of really interesting pilot projects in the country.
We are currently working on launching our brand Forest Foods which focuses on small & medium-sized acreages. At the moment, COVID-19 has completely disrupted our ability to move forward on projects, but we hope things will clear up soon.
AfricaLive: Please introduce our readers to the topic of syntropic agroforestry, why it has been so successful in Brazil, and how it can work in Kenya.
Sven Verwiel: Syntropic agroforestry was developed in Brazil and Costa Rica by a Swiss-Brazilian man called Ernst Götsch. We are students of his work which has helped us work in dry areas like Turkana, Kenya. We previously partnered with British company Tullow Oil in that part of the country by setting up two farms for them in the desert using this new model.
Tullow’s vision was to help develop an agricultural culture in an area dominated by pastoralism and fishing through demonstration farms that could be used as education hubs. We spent over two and a half years in that area. Unfortunately, the project closed early but we gathered a tremendous amount of data and experience in a challenging climate and terrain.
Syntropic agroforestry is a new approach in East Africa that is different from the food forest concept popular in permaculture. Syntropic is far more organised and is a self-perpetuating zero input system where the system itself provides what’s needed to build its health and sustainability.
An introduction to Ernst Götsch and syntropic agriculture
AfricaLive: What has been the impact of traditional methods of farming & fishing in Kenya?
Sven Verwiel: Traditional farming and fishing methods used to be very sustainable. The problem is that nowadays they are not traditional anymore. The common farmer that may have come from a traditional farming background is mostly practising monoculture. Pastoralists are overgrazing their rangelands, unlike their forefathers who practised rotational grazing and understood the importance of the carrying capacity of their natural grazing habitats.
Fisherfolk have discovered nets and commercial ways and due to lack of legislation being followed, they have the means to wipe out their fishery very quickly and very easily.
At the end of the day, they live from day to day and can’t afford to think about tomorrow.
AfricaLive: What are the major challenges in encouraging commercial farmers to adopt sustainable and/or regenerative practices?
Commercial farmers in my experience tend to be of an old school mentality and are usually stuck in their ways.
They are not believers in change and will not change their methods, especially if they are doing well financially. Commercial farmers will change their ways if legislation forces them to but that will take too long.
AfricaLive: Is there hope for practices like syntropic farming to become more established in the East African agriculture sector?
Sven Verwiel: Absolutely, you have two types of agricultural entrepreneurs in Africa right now. You have the old school one that owns a couple of farms and remains old school in their thinking and you have the new type of entrepreneurs that want to explore new ways.
The latter type seeks out companies like ours to design, manage and implement projects for them within a certain duration of time. It mostly the indigenous Africans that tend to hand over their projects to people like us because they want to realize the gains but lack the skills.
Our target audience is the forward-thinking, progressive African investor who has an interest in developing his or her land but knows they don’t have all the skills to do it and want to work with a team of professionals.
It’s almost impossible to convince the older generation of farmers but when they start to see the changes and advancements happening they start to lower their guard and open up to ideas like ours.
AfricaLive: Please tell us a bit more about your local environment and the impact you have had both socially and economically?
Sven Verwiel: We are located in one of the arable hot spots of Kenya where huge amounts of forest clearing were carried out in the colonial era to create land for wheat, barley, and grazing. This shows the need for agroforestry by growing crops along with trees. Our project will show that it’s possible to grow food without having to clear large tracts of forest cover.
In terms of job creation, there is a lot of flower farming here. This sector has a large footprint in terms of water usage but creates very significant job opportunities for a large number of people.
We have worked hard ourselves to provide our twenty-two staff members with a clean working environment. We are also proud to have kept everyone working despite the pandemic so that our workers didn’t end up losing jobs.
Kapitus Isindu, a team member at Tamalu Farm
AfricaLive: Do you believe there is still work to be done to convince investors and the wider community that regenerative agriculture is the way to go?
Sven Verwiel: Yes, because although we have done quite well, we still need to get finances sorted out. Our L.E.A.F website details our seven-step approach to any agricultural project. Step two highlights what we refer to as the bankable business plan. We generally charge north of 150,000 to 200,000 dollars per business plan.
Creating a bankable business plan is an intensive process that involves many site visits; in-depth cross-referencing of crop calendars with soil analysis, livestock genetics, forestry potential, suitability of pre and post-harvest equipment, irrigation potential, climatic analysis, legal affairs, market research, and most importantly the relevant management team required to execute the project. Having such a business plan in place mitigates a lot of risks associated with agri projects failing.
A bankable business plan is one that can get funding from lending institutions.
However, the stumbling block is in raising the funds for this initial business plan.
Regardless of whether you are getting into the project in a commercial and conventional style or a regenerative environmental style, the project will work if the numbers work.
There are lots of banks, such as Stanbic and the African Development Bank, ready to invest in the sector. However, they need to see a bankable plan before they finance anything.
In order to create these initial plans, we are talking with several private players to create a US $5 million start-up fund. These funds can help us create multiple bankable business plans for Kenya, Uganda, and perhaps even Tanzania. Such an effort would see us unveil ten to fifteen commercial projects that can be used as a benchmark to move forward.
We also have plans to mechanize agriculture in order to motivate the youth of Africa to buy into agriculture’s future. These kids have grown up with smartphones and they don’t want to be seen handling farm implements like hoes and machetes. Agtech mechanization and irrigation will help us move forward and we will need the necessary capital expenditure intersecting with that.
AfricaLive: What role do you believe universities should be playing in the development of the sector?
Sven Verwiel: The only way we will get regenerative agriculture benchmarked and held in esteem as high as conventional agriculture is by getting enough papers done by research institutes.
The problem we have had is that research coming out on regenerative agriculture is about temperate regions that are not seen as similar to Africa. If we don’t have studies done from an African perspective, then attitudes will continue to be negative towards the possibilities of what we are doing here.
With ForestFoods, we want to own or manage at least twelve nucleus farms across the country in the next six years in various agro-ecological zones. My vision is to have each of those farms adding a research arm to them. I am sure that peer-reviewed articles will then start coming out about the success that will follow.
Peer-reviewed here means heavy financial data crunching and soil & science data crunching. This data will help us show that it doesn’t just work environmentally and socially but also financially.
The vast majority of syntropic agroforestry data out there is all in Portuguese, references Brazilian currency, and is based on the Brazilian market. We have to try and replicate the success of Brazil but without copy-pasting everything being done there, and localizing the system to fit into our context.