The Food-Security Crisis: Up Close and Deeply Personal

September 12, 2022

By Daphna Berman

IFC views agribusiness as a strategic development priority in Africa. Our financial support through loans or equity coupled with advisory services help clients strengthen their operations with a focus on productivity improvements, climate smart practices, food safety, and better engagement with smallholder supply chains.

Operations officer Nathan Were knows firsthand the challenges faced by the smallholder farmers he’s tasked with supporting. An agribusiness specialist and farmer himself, he experiences daily the impacts of climate change, rising fuel and fertilizer costs, and increasing food insecurity in his native Uganda — and across the region.

Nathan joined IFC in 2018 as a consultant and today works on several agribusiness advisory projects in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Zimbabwe from his IFC office in Nairobi. He spoke recently about his passion for agriculture, how he stays motivated, and why collecting plastic bottles on the streets of Kampala inspired him to establish an educational foundation for disadvantaged children.

Nathan Were at an event marking the closure of a joint IFC – WFP project in Kigali, in July 2022. The project, which was supported by the Private Sector Window of the GAFSP, trained 145 farmer cooperatives, reached 39,000 farmers, and boosted grain production and grain quality in Rwanda. Photo: Simeon Uwiringiyeyesu

There’s a lot of talk about the food-security crisis. What are you seeing in the field?

I see the crisis on two levels: In urban settings, food prices have skyrocketed, pushing many low-income families to just one meal a day. In rural areas, where most families are dependent on agriculture, we see farmers who are forced to sell their livestock, which has long-term implications for productivity and livelihoods. Fertilizer prices are also higher than ever, and so smallholder farmers can’t afford the quality inputs they need to increase production, which is critical to food security.

How is climate change impacting that challenge?

Farmers used to rely on a traditional planting cycle, but climate change has caused longer dry seasons and more inconsistent rains. Farmers don’t know when to plant or how to plan. Climate change is also affecting their yields: Rains don’t come on time and seeds aren’t germinating. Also, without enough fodder and water for animals, milk production goes down. The result is that food is less available — and more expensive for everyone. This causes a lot of frustration because many of the farmers have gone through our trainings and adopted good agricultural practices. They’ve made every effort, but they are limited in what they can implement given the drought.

Nathan Were, meeting one of the dairy extension executives.
Nathan Were, meeting one of the dairy extension executives who trains dairy farmers as part of the IFC and GAFSP-supported Pearl Dairy project in western Uganda. Photo: Namanya Dennis

That sounds difficult. How do you stay motivated?

Talking to farmers and hearing about their successes keeps me focused on our mission. In countries like Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya, populations are increasing at a rate higher than food production, so we need to make sure we have enough affordable, quality food. Many of our farmers can’t increase the size of their land, so supporting them to increase production on the land they have is critical to food security. It can be difficult to convince traditional farmers to change their methods, but we’ve had a lot of success creating demonstration plots, where trainers divide a plot of land into two and apply best practices on only half the land. This helps farmers see the effects of quality inputs and training. There’s so much potential to make an impact — and that has been energizing.

What attracted you to agribusiness?

I come from a farming family. My grandmother was a potato farmer, which is how she supported my siblings and me. I am also a farmer: I grow bananas and raise goats on my farm outside Kampala. I feel the pains that farmers face and also understand their struggles. I try new things on my farm to see what works, and I practice what I preach.

Nathan Were on a field visit to the Mityana district in Uganda.
Nathan Were on a field visit to the Mityana district in Uganda, where farmers are receiving advisory services though the IFC and GAFSP-supported Grainpulse project. The team met with farmers to hear about the challenges they face — and how improved access to inputs and training is helping them boost their incomes and food security. Photo: Namanya Dennis

Your journey from your grandmother’s farm to operations officer at IFC wasn’t easy. Can you tell us more about it?

Growing up, we struggled to afford school fees and even food. I’m the oldest of seven children, and we had a meager family income. As a young boy, I sold charcoal, and at 13, I was a street hawker of women’s shoes, which helped pay for my school fees. Sometimes I would go a full day without a sale, but it taught me resilience. When my family moved to the city, I started collecting plastic bottles from garbage bins to cover the cost of books. Later, as part of a scholarship to secondary school, I provided casual labor — moving bricks and sand — in exchange for school fees. I received a scholarship to university, where I studied social work and economics. My first job after university was as a loan officer in microfinance, working with farmers. Later, I worked at Equity Bank, the Grameen Foundation, CGAP and several other institutions before joining IFC. In 2019, I published a book about my experience, From Garbage Collection to a Global Development Bank: A 15-year Journey of Prayer, Resilience and Hard Work.

Nathan Were, with Grainpulse extension agents in Uganda.
Nathan Were, with Grainpulse extension agents at one of the coffee demonstration farms in the Mityana District in Uganda. Photo: Namanya Dennis

Published in September 2022