Shiro Wachira, MA ’23: Harnessing Farming’s Human Capital

Stanford Impact Founder Fellow plans to transform agricultural education in Africa.

December 08, 2023

| by Sarah Murray

Shiro Wachira wants to empower rural African communities through agriculture. | Nyasha Kadandara

Ask Shiro Wachira about Growing Acres, and she may start by telling you how her social enterprise will build the talent needed to expand sustainable, productive agriculture in Africa. Dig a little deeper, however, and it emerges that Kenya-born Wachira believes she can deliver far more than training. With a passion for promoting economic justice, her goal is to transform the way the development sector thinks about human capital.

While working in Kenya at One Acre Fund, an agricultural services nonprofit, Wachira came to understand what it means to earn a living by growing food. However, it was while studying for her master’s in international policy at Stanford that she started to see the need for a fundamental rethinking of people and skills — particularly when it comes to low-income and rural communities.

“My whole life, people have told me I can do things and that, if I apply myself, I can solve problems,” she says. “And when you get to environments like Stanford, you hear this message over and over again — I’ve come to see this reinforcement as a privilege.”

It was not a message she often heard in the development community. “I began to think how poorly hope and self-belief is distributed across socio-economic groups,” she says. “We focus on suffering alleviation, but the sector doesn’t think of progress out of poverty in a sustainable way.”

This prompted her to start developing a new form of agricultural education — an apprenticeship model that could empower Africa’s rural communities to see farming not as an unchanging method of survival but as a dynamic entrepreneurial activity that could improve livelihoods, provide the farming careers of the future, and help turn the continent into a powerhouse for sustainable agriculture. “That got me really fired up,” she says.

These are among the ambitions she has for Growing Acres. The enterprise will offer a customizable agricultural curriculum based on three pillars: technical education, professional skills, and behavioral competencies. Wachira sees this holistic approach as essential. Unless we treat people as our single most important resource, she argues, it will be impossible to tackle some of the world’s hardest and most entrenched social and environmental challenges.

The Problem

In providing education and training to Africa’s farmers, Wachira is standing on the shoulders of others who have gone before her — from philanthropists and development specialists to government agencies. However, she sees the content and business models of existing offerings unable to match the rapidly evolving demands of the market in a sector that needs to shift rapidly towards more sustainable models.

“We focus on suffering alleviation, but the sector doesn’t think of progress out of poverty in a sustainable way.”

This is because many traditional agricultural extension services are delivered by government agencies, which take a strictly technical approach, or are offered at tertiary institutions at prices smallholder farmers may find unaffordable. Farmers may also lack the formal education prerequisites needed for the programs. Meanwhile, nonprofit models have generally been unable to achieve the speed and scale in the training programs they provide.

Wachira sees what she calls a “missing middle” between training in basic agricultural practices such as row planting and input micro-dosing and the highly sophisticated forms of education that prepare graduates for research agencies, rather than for productive farms.

She believes that developing the missing middle in African agricultural talent is critical to unlocking growth and enabling the continent to contribute to a more sustainable global food supply.

The Solution

In developing Growing Acres, Wachira believes it is possible to strike a balance between delivering the practical and technical skills needed to implement regenerative farming and giving farming professionals the ability to innovate and think strategically so that they can turn agricultural activities into opportunities for sustainable growth.

To do this, Growing Acres will run apprenticeship programs on working farms using a customizable curriculum that uses a learning model that is 10% theory, 20% peer coaching, and 70% in-field practice. Importantly, by running programs on working farms, apprentices will be able to apply what they are learning to their work in real-time.

As the business develops, Growing Acres will develop bespoke training programs that are suited to the various needs of different commercial farms. Over time, building on increasing amounts of data and experience, it will be possible to generate sophisticated insights into agricultural performance.

This will enable Growing Acres to tailor its programs ever more closely to the operations of each business. Moreover, through predictive models, it will be able to make recommendations to a wide range of different types of primary producers.

The Innovator

Given her ambition to transform agricultural practice and change lives in rural African communities, it is perhaps no surprise to learn that the subject Wachira studied as a University of Chicago undergraduate was philosophy. “That always prompts the big meaty questions about what we owe each other,” she says.

These “big meaty questions” led her into community organizing. While at university she worked with community groups and other students on a healthcare justice campaign on Chicago’s South Side. “That activated my interest in the idea of people power and the power of communities coming together with a shared purpose,” she says.

However, it was while growing up in Nairobi that she first learned about the importance of service. Her mother spent a career working in government while her father was an activist who, in the early 1990s had fought for multi-party elections in Kenya. “I had a family that was deeply connected to civic service and being part of building a nation,” she says.

After graduating from Chicago, Wachira continued her community organizing activities in New York while also working as the case manager for an eviction reduction program and community organizer with the Movement for Black Lives.

After a year in New York, she made the decision to move back to Kenya, where she planned to contribute to community transformation. And with about 60% of the population employed in agriculture, mostly in smallholder farming, she knew she would need to consider working in the sector. “It felt like the bedrock of social and economic justice on the continent,” she says.

She knew very little about agriculture at the time, but she secured a job at One Acre Fund, where she learned about how African farms operated, ran programs, and built partnerships with farm suppliers and microfinance institutions.

However, it was when she was managing talent for One Acre Fund that she started to see an opportunity for a transformational impact. Working on everything from diversity recruitment to performance management and culture change, she understood how human capital underpinned social change. “I realized I had a huge passion for creating environments that enable other people to do their best,” she says.

She knows that transforming agricultural education will not be easy, particularly given the strength of entrenched beliefs about how farmers should be trained.

But when she meets resistance, what drives her on is her belief in the potential to deliver sustainable, cost-effective programs that can re-imagine agricultural education. “The audacious vision is that we are the gold standard for agriculture services in the region,” she says.

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