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Young entrepreneurs find sustainable way to help other women to support themselves

Editor's note: This article was written by Angela Pantell from the United States, one of the four delegates selected to share their success story during GYV’s session during the 2017 summer Youth Assembly at the United Nations. Learn more about her story here, in her own words.

My name is Angela Pantell and I am a cofounder of the Mama Farm Foundation. The story of the Mama Farm Foundation begins with the story of my friend and colleague Winnie Mangeni.

Winnie and I met during our first year of college at the University of Notre Dame. Before coming to Notre Dame, Winnie ran away from home in Mombassa, Kenya at the age of seventeen to avoid being married to a man who she would be forced to depend upon for finances and who would likely engage in domestic violence.

Winnie was able to overcome the obstacles that were preventing her success, but unfortunately there are so many young Kenyan women who are unable to do what Winnie did. Because of this, Winnie and I decided to find a suitable way to help young women support themselves.

We therefore started a pig farm for women in Bumala, Kenya, called the “Mama Farm Foundation,” and we work closely to improve the foundation’s management and expand it throughout Kenya and East Africa. The farm addresses a main issue preventing young women from being able to support themselves financially, a lack of credit and capital keeping them from starting businesses or working without depending on the finances of a potentially abusive husband.

Instead of taking out a loan with finances they don’t have, the women working with our farm are given ownership of a sow and pay the foundation back by returning two piglets to the farm once the sow bares a litter. This allows the cycle to continue and provides employment opportunities for more and more young women to become involved in the farm. We also provide important entrepreneurship and leadership skills to the women to help them become more self-sufficient.

Pigs are an excellent choice for this venture because they reproduce and grow quickly making them a steady source of income, are relatively easy to care for, and provide many different products and services to humans that range from waste disposal and meat for consumption to materials for clothing and rubber. In spite of the clear importance of pigs, many aspects of pig raising are not sustainable.

The main challenge facing the foundation in terms of sustainability is developing feed for the pigs that is both environmentally and economically sustainable and that also improves the health of the pigs. We currently purchase expensive and low-quality feed for the pigs because we lack the resources to produce feed on site.

Our best solution is to grow nutritious crops on the farm for the pigs to eat. This can’t be done easily, however, due to the arid climate, dry soils, and soil erosion characteristic of this region of Kenya. Solving this problem is the focus of my work.

Rural lands have become poorly managed due to the rise of industrial agricultural practices that feature high amounts of external inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides that typically are synthesized from non-renewable resources and cause significant environmental damage to surrounding areas.

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Such practices have greatly depleted the nutrient reservoirs in agricultural soils, have led to increased susceptibility to wind and water erosion, and have significantly decreased soil quality and fertility. Coupled with the temperature and drought increases that are anticipated to accompany global climate change, these decreases in soil quality pose a pressing challenge to sustainable agriculture in western Kenya and other arid lands around the world that are attempting to increase food security for their growing populations.

The solutions to these problems are inherently interdisciplinary, so I am working on an integrative approach that aims to tackle this challenge from every side so that we can address these issues as efficiently and effectively as possible.

As an environmental science and economics double major, I have learned a lot about both soil management and long term economic development, so I’m working to incorporate this knowledge into our plan for the farm. I’m collaborating with a sustainable farm near my university where I am observing their commitment to sustainability and learning how to incorporate their practices into our farm.

I will study abroad at the University of Western Australia where I’m planning on undertaking soil science research to help me learn how best to manage soils and improve their fertility in arid climates faced with erosion and nutrient depletion.

When Winnie and I travel to Kenya, I will not only be conducting soil testing to determine the management practices we need, but I will also be conducting ethnopedology research to gain an understanding of traditional, local practices of soil management.

Ethnopedology is very important because local people have been farming this land for thousands of years and have a wealth of knowledge on managing the soils on a daily basis. This research is also important for ensuring that the solutions we propose are culturally relevant, valuable, and practical to the young women we are trying to help.

Environmentally sustainable techniques to improve soil fertility include composting, green manures, and cover crops. These practices help increase the carbon sequestration capabilities of soils which helps mitigate the effects of climate change, and growing the food on site eliminates the economic and environmental costs of transporting feed to our farms.

Producing commercial crops provides economic benefits to the young women who can sell the crops in addition to increasing the health of the pigs and the individuals that consume them.

By employing sustainable techniques to improve soil management on our farm, the foundation will become nearly self-sufficient, have a much smaller impact on the environment, and provide more employment opportunities to the women for crop raising. These practices help reduce costs so that funds can be allotted to continue growing the network of farms in our foundation. These solutions are also very important because they can be customized and applied to farms across the world that are experiencing the same problems of water shortages and erosion due to climate change and soil infertility due to industrial agricultural practices.

A simple idea that one young woman had to improve the lives of other young women in her home country amazingly has had the potential to help mitigate so many of the problems that our planet faces today.

Ensuring nutritious food to pigs and consumers is a huge step in improving human health and well-being, and good nutrition and health are the first steps to educating people so that they have the human capital necessary to improve their livelihoods. We highly value education, which is why we are focusing both on gaining wisdom from older generations of Kenyans about the successful and sustainable management of their land as well as educating Kenya’s young women to pass on this knowledge to future generations.

Agriculture is a huge source of employment and is an effective way to empower the world’s young women who would be otherwise unable to support themselves with new opportunities for economic growth.

Industrial agriculture is also one of the biggest contributors to climate change, so improving agricultural techniques will help fight climate change. Winnie and I hope that our continued dedication to these issues will allow us to spread our foundation to sustain our planet environmentally, economically and socially, and impact young women for generations to come.

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Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV