Emmanuel Kirwa, a boda boda soil advocate

Transforming Kenya's motorcycle taxi riders into soil experts

Boda boda riders, also known as motorcycle taxi riders, are a common feature in Kenya. They provide essential transport services, delivering goods and connecting people. For iCow founder and chief executive officer, Su Kahumbu, what she saw was an opportunity to harness that connectivity to deliver knowledge to farming communities to help them optimize their land and raise their productivity. 

Thus, was born the ingenious concept of the iCow Soil Advocacy Program, a training program designed around the boda boda riders’ ability to organize and reach rural areas. Launched in June 2021, the program has trained hundreds of boda boda riders to become ‘Soil Advocates’ through a 2-3 month-long online course that covers climate change, carbon cycles, the Soil Food Web, regenerative agriculture, composting, cover planting/cropping, soil structure and advocacy. Classes are held on Zoom or WhatsApp groups, enabling the program to have a greater geographical reach. 

‘One of the primary things we are doing is to show farmers how to diagnose and then reverse soil damage, teaching them tried-and-tested cost-effective practices that put them on a journey towards healing our soils and learning to make them work better for us,’ said Kahumbu.

Joining forces for more sustainable, inclusive farming

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has partnered with the program through its Mazingira Centre, which provides soil advocates with technical knowledge and consultations with ILRI experts. Claudia Arndt, lead of the Mazingira Centre, saw this as an opportunity to tap into a novel method of disseminating climate smart practices, such as manure management, that have been emerging from the center’s research. Mazingira’s involvement in the training program has provided the soil advocates with access to technical knowledge and consultations with ILRI experts. 

‘One element that attracted us to the program is that they have embedded a mechanism to ensure women are reached,’ said Arndt. ‘The soil advocates are encouraged to share their learned knowledge first with their family, either their plus-one or spouses, or another female member.’

The program has been successful in attracting not only boda boda riders but also farmer participants and women soil advocates. 

Charles Kiusya, a boda boda rider and soil advocate from Makueni County, has worked with 300 individuals to test their soil and create and use compost manure in their farms. 

“As I started teaching the farmers about the soil integrity test, they asked me how they could improve their already degraded soil. That is when I started teaching them about compost and managing manure using easily available materials,” said Kiusya.

Improved soil with worms
Improved worm population in regenerated soil. Photo courtesy of iCow

Recognizing Achievements and Building Connections

Participants receive certificates confirming their completion of the training, with individuals awarded for achievements in different activity categories. They can also stay connected through a peer learning platform, where they can continue to exchange information.

Kiusya is also one of seven participants who were awarded a scholarship from the Soil Food Web school in Oregon. 

‘This course, developed by the infamous soil biologist Dr. Elaine Ingham, awards internationally recognized certificates and qualifications on soil regeneration,’ said Kahumbu. ‘This opens new paths for successful participants, making them qualify to become, for instance, soil lab technicians at an organization.’

The iCow Soil Advocacy Program continues to grow, offering a 3-month soil advocacy course, followed by a further three-month soil microscopy course. Kahumbu's long-term goal is to develop a smallholder farmer soil microbiology service where individuals on the ground are trained to a level where they can assess soils, composts and vermiculture and guide smallholder farmers on how to improve the biology of their land.

"Biology is the driver of productivity and improved yields, and that's where we're going," Kahumbu said.