Sowing Seeds of Prosperity in East Africa

Entrepreneur and horticulturalist Steve Jones was on a Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) agricultural trade mission to Madagascar in 2006 when he first began thinking about how modern plant propagation techniques might help struggling East African farmers boost their productivity and prosperity.

“What I saw during my visit made an impression,” said Jones. Considering he and his wife, Cheryl, have 30 years of experience operating their business, Greenwood Nursery, in Tennessee, he knew there had to be something he could do that might make a difference.

The Joneses spent the next year developing a sustainable business model to improve the East African region’s agriculture and then coordinated with FAS to present his idea to more than 10 different African countries during the next FAS trade mission to the region in 2007. The overwhelming response from African representatives, especially the Ministry of Agriculture in Rwanda, pushed the Joneses to begin Forestry and Agricultural Investment Management Ltd. (FAIM).

FAIM’s goal is to establish plant propagation laboratories throughout Africa using the latest scientific research and techniques to produce healthy starter plants (seedlings) for African farmers. After a few years of research, in 2011 Rwanda invited FAIM to set up labs to develop and distribute 15-17 million virus-free banana starter plants for farmers in four out of the country’s five regions.

“Each region has specific diseases that affect the quality and production of the crop,” Jones said. “Their crop yield is, on average, 25 percent of what it could be per hectare measured against world standards. The problem is self-perpetuating if farmers use root division as their form of propagation, which passes viruses forward year to year.”

Instead of root division, Jones and other FAIM plant experts use plant tissue culture, which is a propagation process that extracts DNA from healthy plants within a crop to create virus-free seedlings without genetic modification. This breaks the disease cycle and allows for a consistent, high-quality supply. Plus, the seedlings are fairly cheap to produce and sell at a lower cost. Rwandan farmers using the seedlings are already producing 200-400 percent more than before.

“The farmers are able to provide a consistent supply to market and make more money, raising their standard of living and giving them enough income to purchase new plant stock when needed,” Jones said.

FAIM’s efforts will help create extensive benefits not only for the East African region, but also for U.S. exporters. The successful implementation of the project will generate an ongoing requirement for inputs from the U.S. such as supplies, packaging, product transformation equipment and farming equipment.

USDA-sponsored trade missions contribute significantly to the expansion of U.S. agricultural markets and the creation of jobs for American workers. In the past three years, FAS led more than 100 U.S. agribusinesses on trade missions to various countries including China, Peru, Indonesia, Vietnam, Iraq, Georgia, Colombia, Panama and the Philippines.