A Seed of Maize: KickStart on Storytelling for Impact

Published Dec. 7, 2017

By for  Zachary Slobig for The Skoll Foundation

About Powering Agriculture

Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development supports the development and deployment of clean energy innovations that increase agriculture productivity and stimulate low carbon economic growth in the agriculture sector of developing countries to help end extreme poverty and extreme hunger.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 12 million people who rely on smallholder agriculture have improved their yields and income with the help of a single, simple piece of technology: a human-powered water pump designed by KickStart International (2015 Awardee). KickStart calls these tools “MoneyMakers” and has devised farmer friendly financing to speed their deployment in the areas of greatest need.

KickStart recently released A Seed of Maize, a short, scripted film that places the viewer in the midst of one poor farming family as they face the biggest dilemma of their lives. Filmed in rural Zambia in a documentary vérité style by Emmy award-winning director Topaz Adizes and award-winning producer Ofir Kedar, the story explores universal issues—poverty, health, and girls’ education—against the backdrop of tradition, community, and family. We recently caught up with Chevenee Reavis, Chief Strategy & Partnerships Officer at KickStart, to hear more about how the project was conceived and why they consider ambitious storytelling an important tool for large scale social change.

Zach Slobig: The film has this wonderfully authentic, documentary quality. What can you tell me about the community where the project was made? Is this a place where KickStart “MoneyMaker” tools have improved lives?

Zambia stretches hundreds of miles across rolling hills, forests, and arid landscapes. Remote rural farming communities dot the countryside, literally on the last mile of a given road. The village where A Seed of Maizewas shot, is one of those very remote villages, illustrative of the type of communities where KickStart works.

It is often a family like Florence’s—living in poverty and teetering on the razor-sharp edge of possibility or catastrophe—that can benefit most from simple irrigation. KickStart’s work has created this opportunity for over 40,000 people in Zambia, helping them to lift themselves out of poverty, and creating almost 10,000 smallholder farming businesses. On average, when a family transitions from exclusively rain-fed or bucket irrigation to simple forms of irrigation like a MoneyMaker pump, they can increase their yields and incomes by 400 percent.

Farmer featured in A Seed of Maize

While the math sounds simple enough, it’s a complex decision-making process for a family, as A Seed of Maize shows. The choices that Florence’s parents have to make bring the story of KickStart to life. While A Seed a Maize is about a single family in Zambia, it illustrates the communities that KickStart has worked with for more than 20 years across Africa, and there are no better storytellers than the families themselves.

Zach: The story draws a direct line between increased income for struggling small holder farmers and the means to educate girls. Is that dynamic as clearly evident in these communities?

Women and girls often bear the burden of collecting, carrying, and caring for a family’s water needs. This is true all over the world. For young girls, having water accessible can mean the difference between being in a field or in a classroom. For Florence and her siblings in A Seed of Maize, their parents decided to invest in their education by taking a risk on a MoneyMaker pump. This is emblematic of how transformative even the first step towards irrigation can be for a family.

Farmer featured in A Seed of Maize

Zach: How did the team at KickStart work with the filmmakers to ensure accuracy and cultural sensitivity?

KickStart did two things. First, our Zambian colleagues connected directly with families whose stories felt authentic and illustrative of our work, while also ensuring the process was empowering and culturally appropriate. Secondly, producer Ofir Kedar pulled together a trusted team that shared his passion for KickStart’s mission. Meeting those families and “auditioning” them as part of the film was a process that only director Topaz Adizes could lead. He cast and directed the film in less than two weeks. By design, the crew was small and the equipment was light. They worked hard to be unobtrusive, and with only high-level guidance from KickStart, Topaz collaborated with Florence, Anna, and Emmanuel to tell their story.

Zach: Working with the filmmakers, how did you envision the intended audience for this project?

Over the years, KickStart International has developed quick “explainer” videos about its vision and mission in an effort to make it more accessible to broader audiences. But even the best promotional video couldn’t fully explain this complicated story. For generations, families have farmed the same way in Sub-Saharan Africa—relying on the rain. For the most part, the skies have delivered year after year. But climate change is making rainfall more unpredictable, and given the projected population growth of Africa and the world, we need our food systems to work harder than ever. We can’t get there on rain alone.

Changing understanding, culture, and behavior is a tall order, especially for rural and remote communities like Florence’s. With a director/producer team that understood KickStart’s work at a visceral level, we had a chance to go far beyond a typical promotional or fundraising video. We believed our audience could extend to policy makers and influencers working on advancing the green revolution across Africa.

Zach: How does storytelling fit into your broader strategy for systems-level change?

KickStart’s ultimate goal is to enable millions more African farmers to make more money and take a major step out of poverty. To support this vision, we must outline the economic, social, and sustainability benefits of that dynamic. We also must give farmers a platform to share their stories and play a central role in the conversation.

Child featured in A Seed of Maize

Nearly two thirds of the Sub-Saharan population reside in rural areas, and approximately 80 percent of those communities are connected to smallholder farmers in some way. Smallholders play a key role in achieving food security, and in generating poverty-reducing agricultural growth. They are also stewards of increasingly scarce natural resources on the frontline of the impacts of climate change.

There are many actors working to strengthen Africa’s food security through a variety of investments, but smart irrigation must be one of those. A Seed of Maize will be a tool in our advocacy toolbox to help shape that dialogue in Africa and on the global stage.

Zach: It seems like storytelling for impact is more an art than a science. What are your goals in terms of impact for this project, and how would you measure it?

We believe the power of storytelling extends well beyond the launch of a film. The long-term impacts of influencing hearts and minds is difficult to measure, but in the short-term, we see the film as an opportunity to foster dialogue with influencers in the agricultural sector in Sub-Saharan Africa. The film can also be leveraged in the U.S. with KickStart’s community of supporters to deepen their connection to our work. Most importantly, every audience will have a deeper appreciation for the lives of the farmers that we are all working in service of.

Zach: This project was supported by the Flex Fund, a collaboration between the Skoll Foundation, Ford Foundation, and DOC SOCIETY to advance storytelling for impact and tell stories of effective social entrepreneurs. Why is this type of funding important, and what could other funders learn here?

Social enterprises such as KickStart International are experts in their fields. KickStart needed to engage partners in storytelling and film making to see its work from a new perspective. Now that the film is complete, support from the Flex Fund provides KickStart access to outreach and measurement to take the storytelling piece to the next level.

Related News & Events: 
Dec. 17, 2018

KickStart's MoneyMaker pumps help farmers who are often barely feeding themselves to grow more crops and sell their surplus. What's next? They're planning to open an innovation hub in Kenya to develop new irrigation solutions so it can expand into 16 countries across Africa by 2021.