Joining forces, Canadians sow the seeds of food security in developing nations

A  Maasai  warrior shows off sweet potatoes, just one of many vegetables grown at Free The Children’s 200-acre Oleleshwa Farm in Kenya’s South Narok region. The farm was created through FTC's  partnership with Saskatchewan-based PotashCorp, which contributes funding, know-how and other support to the initiative. 

A Maasai warrior shows off sweet potatoes, just one of many vegetables grown at Free The Children’s 200-acre Oleleshwa Farm in Kenya’s South Narok region. The farm was created through FTC's  partnership with Saskatchewan-based PotashCorp, which contributes funding, know-how and other support to the initiative. 

By Randall Mang

Packed alongside 30 other volunteers and Free The Children (FTC) staff aboard an open-air lorry, we ramble down dirt roads through Kenya’s South Narok region, red dust billowing around us. Along the roadside, local children and adults, unabashed in their threadbare clothing, smile and wave enthusiastically.

Like most Kipsigi and Maasai villagers in this region, they have come to recognize Canadian philanthropists Craig and Marc Kielburger and their Free The Children organization as welcome members of their community – and a beacon of hope for a brighter, self-sufficient future.

Our ride comes to a halt at FTC’s Oleleshwa Farm, an unassuming yet vital pillar in FTC’s Adopt a Village program, which aims to tackle poverty through a comprehensive effort that integrates education, economic development, community health, and food and water security.

Like similar initiatives now underway in impoverished communities elsewhere in the world, Oleleshwa is a shining example of how charities and members of Canada’s agri-food sector are working together to improve the lives of needy citizens at home and abroad.

Free The Children’s Oleleshwa Farm’s greenhouses burst with fresh produce and are training ground for local farmers. 

Free The Children’s Oleleshwa Farm’s greenhouses burst with fresh produce and are training ground for local farmers. 

A dozen greenhouses, each about 30 feet wide by 150 deep, flank a narrow pathway that leads to over 200 planted acres of farmland teeming with produce. Broccoli, cauliflower, green peppers, red cabbage, spinach and butternut squash thrive. There are carrots, onions, leeks and eggplant growing. Pineapples, passion fruit, papayas, apples, bananas and other fruits abound. A pond shimmers with hundreds of tilapia fish. Hens are laying eggs.

Pictured above, PotashCorp volunteers help with a harvest.

Pictured above, PotashCorp volunteers help with a harvest.

Marc Kielburger says Oleleshwa and the nearby Kisaruni Farm are a result of FTC’s partnership with Saskatchewan-based global fertilizer giant PotashCorp, which has committed over $9.6 million in funding and other support to FTC’s food security efforts here as well as in India and China.

According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) data, the need to combat hunger is great. Between 2012 and 2014, approximately 804 million people worldwide – about one in every nine citizens – were chronically under nourished. While progress towards the UN’s Millennium Development Hunger Reduction Goals is encouraging, FAO notes that Kenya and other countries require continuing support in order to combat downward trends.

A Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development official says chronic hunger is a complex issue – one with far-reaching implications on social and economic health.

Here in the South Narok, the local community of just over 1,000 souls long struggled to meet its year-round food requirements. Social challenges ranging from a lack of education to early marriages as well as students dropping out of school in order to herd livestock only add to the dilemma.

Kielburger notes, “Building capacity is needed to address the challenges of increasing desertification and shifting weather patterns, and ensure these communities have access to self-sustaining food sources, which directly impacts health, access to education and life outcomes.”

According to the Foreign Affairs official, “Solving these issues requires a multi-sector approach – government, civil society, the agri-food sector, farmers themselves working together – a combination of knowledge, innovation, research and other expertise – areas in which Canada excels.”

PotashCorp’s work with FTC in Kenya and elsewhere yields more than food for the community and children who attend FTC schools. Company president and CEO Jochen Tilk says, “We’re teaching people in Kenya, India and China to be better, more productive farmers. That means they will have better food security not only this year, but for many years to come.”

In Kenya, PotashCorp’s funding of farm equipment, livestock and improved irrigation systems has also enabled the cultivation of multiple crops annually, as well as Oleleshwa Farm’s expansion. Today, excess produce is sold in the local market, bringing extra money to community coffers.

“The Kenyan farmers are generating revenue for their village from the sale of eggs and produce to pay for the salaries of three additional teachers, as well as the inputs for the next farm year to ensure that the village’s food supply is sustainable,” says Tilk.

Canadian food manufacturers are also cooking up innovative hunger relief efforts worldwide.

In 2011, iconic soup maker Campbell Company of Canada launched Nourish – a nutrient-dense, complete meal-in-a-can designed for distribution in Canadian food banks and disaster relief zones.

Campbell spokesperson Melanie Rockliff says Campbell Canada’s leadership team came up with the concept while on volunteer mission in the Dominican Republic. “It felt natural that a food company should get behind efforts to fight hunger. Our R&D department worked away and came up with Nourish.”

A vegetarian meal, Nourish can be served hot or cold and boasts a full serving of all three food groups (per Canada’s food guide) plus important nutrients including protein, iron and calcium thanks in part to its incorporation of a unique variety of oats grown exclusively in Manitoba. Like other Campbell Canada products, much of the ingredients used to make Nourish are harvested within a 3-hour drive of the company’s Etobicoke, Ontario, plant.

Since 2011, Campbell Canada has donated more than 300,000 cans of Nourish to Food Banks Canada and has also delivered the product to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Rockliff says Nourish also plays a role the company’s annual hunger awareness and food drive campaign, Help Hunger Disappear, which encourages Canadians to make donations to their local food banks.

Last year, New Brunswick-based McCain Foods helped launch a social enterprise through its Colombian subsidiary that will see underprivileged farming families in Colombia develop commercially viable and sustainable potato, carrot and pea farming businesses.

Dubbed ‘Campo Vivo,’ the initiative, which has since earned the Colombian government’s support, was sparked through an alliance between McCain and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus.

For its part, McCain will invest approximately $2.2 million US over the next three years to operate 'Campo Vivo’ as an independent business with a social objective.

“When you look at the equation from farm to fork – that whole value chain is private sector led, so it’s crucial to look at innovative ways of governments and NGOs to partner with private-sector companies,” says the Foreign Affairs official. “Governments can help by building bridges and policy that encourage collaboration and investment. The key for us is about results on the ground. We want to ensure lasting solutions.”

In Kenya, Marc Kielburger says PotashCorp’s support has helped increase crop yields across all communities by an average of 15.6 per cent. Further, a recent study showed that overall, 92.5 per cent of respondents said their family’s health had improved over the last year. “In Kenya, respondents reported that there was less illness, they went to the hospital less, and children missed school less frequently,” says Kielburger.

Kielburger also notes PotashCorp’s support helps FTC educate and engage Canadian youth by developing a food security curriculum, sponsoring 25 annual student trips to Free The Children communities, and serving as the regional title sponsor for We Day Saskatchewan, an annual event that “inspires more than 15,000 students and educators to take action on global and local issues.”

 At Campbell’s, Melanie Rockliff says, “I hope that other organizations and food companies are encouraged by what we can accomplish through partnerships with groups like Free The Children and Food Banks Canada, and coming up with new ways to help address hunger.”


Zinc about it

Forces deep within Canada’s agri-food sector are among those working for a greater good.

Vancouver-based mining giant Teck is one of the world’s largest suppliers of zinc – a key nutrient in fertilizer and an essential ingredient of human health. Teck CEO Don Lindsay gets visibly animated when describing Teck’s Zinc & Health program (

Zinc deficiency is one of the most common micronutrient deficiency problems globally, especially in rice, wheat or corn, explains Lindsay, noting, “Nearly half of cultivated soils worldwide currently contain low amounts of zinc, and by 2018 this could reach 65 per cent.”

In human health, zinc deficiency can lead to impaired growth and neurological development, as well as a weakened immune system.

While adding a small amount of zinc to fertilizer can significantly increase crop output and improve the nutritional quality of agricultural products, therapeutic zinc is an inexpensive treatment for diarrhea, which kills 1,500 children worldwide every day.

Teck is a founding member of the Zinc Alliance for Child Health, a $25-million partnership with UNICEF, the Government of Canada and the Micronutrient Initiative that aims to scale up access to zinc in high burden countries. To date, nearly eight million children, many of them in impoverished West Africa, have received lifesaving zinc tablets.

In China, where nearly half of all arable land is zinc deficient and some 39 per cent of children suffer from zinc deficiency, Teck has been working with China’s Ministry of Agriculture and the International Zinc Association to carry out more than 40 field trials in China, as well as education programs, including national workshops and training courses to demonstrate the benefits of zinc fertilizer.

“The two-year program has demonstrated that zinc fertilizer application has increased crop yields from 8 per cent to 20 per cent and nutritional quality by up to 40 per cent,” says Lindsay.

Since 2011, Teck has partnered with Free The Children to raise awareness about zinc deficiency and reach more than 200,000 youth leaders. In 2012, Teck also partnered with chemical giant BASF to jointly develop affordable zinc fortification solutions to reduce zinc deficiency in developing countries.

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