Volunteer farmers transforming East Africa's dairy sector

In the bustle of large public gatherings, at places of worship, through text messages or even via handwritten letters in the mail, dairy farmers in East Africa are getting to learn about a fresh new approach to agricultural extension: the volunteer farmer trainer model.

The approach, a farmer-to-farmer exchange of knowledge and skills, has been applied with great success within the East Africa Dairy Development (EADD) project, a multifaceted partnership funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation active in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. EADD aims to double the incomes of 179,000 dairy farmers through improved dairy production and marketing. Volunteer farmer trainers help diffuse the knowledge on dairy production they receive from extension workers throughout the community.

“The success of the volunteer farmer trainer approach is changing the way we think about agricultural extension. Here, the farmers themselves are the principal agents of change in their communities, with extension workers serving as facilitators,” says Steven Franzel, head of the Global Research Project on Markets and Value Chains at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

A new policy brief on the volunteer farmer trainer model as applied within the EADD project says that by June 2012, at least 2,676 volunteer farmer trainers—a third of them women—were helping dairy farmers in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda raise their productivity and incomes.

Most of the training on better dairy production is practical and happens on demonstration plots maintained on volunteer farmer trainers’ land. As trainees embrace improved dairy farming methods (e.g. on better livestock feed crops grasses, legumes and trees and shrubs; feed formulation and conservation methods), the volunteers pay them neighbourly visits to look at their progress and answer questions. Because volunteer farmer trainers are resident in the community, they understand the local culture and conditions and use the local language and expressions; this helps with communication and builds trust. On average, each volunteer farmer trainer reaches five villages outside of their own, travelling mostly on foot and covering up to 7 km a day.

What drives these farmer trainers to devote their time and energy in this way, all without drawing a salary?

“Seeing other farmers in the community improve their productivity as a result of my training gives me satisfaction. It makes me feel good,” Mrs. Agatha Buuri from Mweiga, Kieni West District in Kenya, told Evelyn Kiptot, a social scientist with ICRAF involved in the EADD project. Kiptot is also the lead author of the new policy brief.

Mrs. Esther Wamucii Wambugu , another volunteer farmer trainer in Mweiga, said results were her source of inspiration, too: “When I see the farmers I have trained increasing their milk production, I get the confidence to train more farmers, because it is a sign that my work is bearing fruit.”

Active dairy farmers in their own right, volunteer farmer trainers find their work brings them early access to knowledge and technology, which they can apply on their own farms. Their links with agricultural extension and project teams provide them an avenue to sell fodder seeds and seedlings they have grown to fellow farmers. They may also provide services such as baling and cutting of feed crops at a fee.

As an added bonus, their service sometimes brings the volunteers social capital and clout.

“Service to the community has made me become so famous…wherever I go, farmers refer to me as Mwalimu (Kiswahili for teacher). This recognition has raised my social status,” Mr. Laban Tallam, a volunter farmer trainer from Kabiyet, Nandi North District in Kenya, told Kiptot.

The volunteer farmer approach complements rather than substitutes regular extension run by government, NGOs or the private sector, Franzel emphasizes. “Indeed, it is through these traditional avenues that volunteers receive technical support and training about innovations in the dairy sector. The volunteers also rely on qualified extension staff to address problems and questions they cannot handle on their own.”  Furthermore, he adds, the model is unsuitable for complex or high-risk practices that need specialized skills, such as animal health.

The policy brief discusses some of the challenges volunteer farmer trainers face. In sparsely populated areas, for instance, the long distances volunteers have to travel from one homestead to another is a hindrance. But with the commitment of the project and volunteers themselves, few of these challenges have proved insurmountable.

The approach has produced impressive results under the EADD project. By 2012, farmers involved in EADD-affiliated projects were selling up to 304,000 liters a day through chilling plants, a 102% increase from 2009.  Researchers were also encouraged to find volunteer farmer trainers involved in another project actively supporting fellow farmers 3 years after that project had ended, pointing to the sustainability of the system.

In a recent media article, “An island of wealth in the Pokot sea of poverty and cattle rustling,” Charles Onyango-Obbo described the transformation of Lelan in Kenya from a backwater to a veritable node of economic activity with electricity, motocycles and cars. This “economic miracle” started with Lelan Highland Dairy Company, a community dairy initiative supported by the EADD project with training and a loan to purchase a milk cooling plant.

“The volunteer trainer approach amplifies the reach of dairy-sector extension and is inclusive of men, women and the poor. It is cost-effective and has been shown to produce real gains in productivity and income,” says Franzel. 

“We developed the policy brief to support policy decisions that will recognize and mainstream the volunteer farmer trainer approach, so it can spread further and raise the incomes and improve the livelihoods of more farmers in rural areas.”


The East Africa Dairy Development (EADD) project is a collaboration of Heifer International, Technoserve, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), African Breeders Services (ABS) and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). ICRAF is participating in the components of dairy feeds and marketing, under the auspices of two CGIAR research programs: Forests, Trees and Agroforestry; and Policies, Institutions and Markets.


Download policy brief: Volunteer farmer trainers: improving smallholder farmers’ access to information for a stronger dairy sector. By Evelyn Kiptot, Steven Franzel and Josephine Kirui

See additional photos at: VFT photos

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Dairy Developments for Small Farmers in Africa

East Africa Dairy Development [PDF]

About East Africa Dairy Development project