#AGRATurnTable: Farmer’s Daughter Telling Farming Stories at the BBC

Meet Anna Jones, the Producer of the BBC’s Countryfile – the most watched Sunday night factual program on British Television with up to nine million viewers per week.

Anna met Waiganjo Njoroge, our Global Media Lead, in Nairobi towards the end of 2016 when she visited Kenya as part of her Nuffield Farming Scholarship. They met again last September at the 2017 African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) held in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.

After an eventful five days, over 50 sessions with close to 300 speakers and attended by over a thousand participants including six African Heads of State and their representatives, ministers, CEOs and farmers. Waiganjo sat down with Anna for a coffee at the Sofitel Abidjan Hotel Ivoire, the venue of the Forum, to get her views on African agriculture as seen through her journalistic eyes.

It is very good to see you again, Anna.

Good to see you too. It has been an incredible one week. Hasn’t it?

It has been. What has your impression of the Forum been?

It is an interesting gathering and I am very pleased to have been here. There is a very good representation of government officials, the private sector and NGOs. At times I’ve picked up on a slight sense of tension between the private sector and the development organizations. Some fellow journalists have made comments about the private sector companies here wondering ‘what are they doing here? Making money off the backs of smallholder farmers whilst selling them potentially harmful chemicals?’. I don’t think that’s a particularly helpful attitude and is a bit simplistic in my view. One or two private sector actors on the other hand have made a couple of wry asides to me about the NGOs. I think there’s a perception there that they throw money at a problem but lack a business-minded approach to getting things done. Perhaps they are questioning the sustainability of their engagement.

Hmm, interesting perspective there.

That said, based on what I have seen and heard, there is great value in having these diverse groups represented. Yes, they come at the problem from different standpoints and philosophies but that is good! We need that diversity. If the people that have made commitments stand by them, something great will happen. I do not walk away feeling cynical but I also do not walk away feeling that the job is done. I’m in the middle with no prejudices. I’m a journalist who believes in giving people the best obtainable version of the truth and the truth is never black and white. It’s more complicated.

What obtainable truth are you getting from the Forum?

All the talk needs to be backed up with more demonstrable action. It’s hard to trust until you see some action. ‘Show us what you have done, show names and places where action has worked’. I liked what the Ghanaian Minister of Agriculture said in one of the press conferences. He gave real examples of ongoing projects. I would love to follow up and see them for myself. There are doubters out there – particularly among us journalists – who wonder if these things do, indeed, exist.

Is that the journalist in you speaking?

I am generally an optimistic journalist while remaining careful not to be played or blinded to certain realities. Journalism isn’t always about being cynical or pursuing the next Watergate or exposing something terrible – I believe we have a duty to report what’s working in the world too.

What form of journalism do you practice?

Journalism has evolved quite a bit. There is the breaking news type and the investigative kind. Both, generally speaking, are quite negative – they expose problems and crises. The new type, which is what I aim to practice, includes an extra element – the solutions. Next steps. Constructive journalism if you may. ‘Here is the problem, here are the people working on it and here are the solutions they are proposing’. Solutions focused journalism is what I call it. You must not ignore the problem – I’m not advocating rosy puff stories – but equally you must not ignore the solutions. You have to look at the whole picture.

A lot has been said about getting agriculture to drive Africa’s economic growth at this Forum. Do you see that happening based on your experience interacting with farmers across the world?

Africa’s population is set to double by 2050. Many farmers in Europe will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of such a growing population providing market for their produce. Based on what I have seen with governments, NGOs, development partners and the private sector committing millions of dollars to Africa’s own green revolution, Africa may be more of a competitor than a customer.

Talking about the huge scale of farming that is happening elsewhere, do smallholder farmers, 70% of the continent’s population, have any chance?

Large-scale farming, although fairly sophisticated, may not, in some cases, be much more profitable than a smallholder farmer because the market that they’re in has driven prices down so low that you have to be big to survive. You’re kind of trapped. Unless you can find a way of adding value, you’re trapped by your size and scale. You have to get big or get out. Small farms on the other hand, are more resilient. Consumers are also changing; they do not necessarily like the big intensive production. They’ll pay for the story.

Is that the way out for smallholder farmers – selling the story?

There’s nothing that European consumers love more than a story. If you can say, “This cheese was produced by Mama Jones who lives on a hill with her lovely 10 cows and she’s been doing it all her life.” They’ll be like, “Ooh, I’ll pay for that story.” It’s about making sure you tell your story.

That is an interesting thought

Bringing out the personality of the smallholders is important. We have talked about smallholder farmers so many times this week but no one said who they are. What are their names? Where do they live? What do they do with their lives? What do they do for fun?  It’s like they’re just a group of poor people working really hard. No, they’ve got families and stories and pastimes. These things need to be told. That said, European farmers are miles ahead. Africa will need to get organized quickly if it is to become globally competitive.

Is this changing people’s attitude towards agriculture?

The biggest challenge is that agriculture is not seen as sexy and most don’t care about farming. For instance, 86% of Brits are urban with very remote links to farming. Focus should start moving away from agriculture – the soil and the crops and the animals – and more on to the table. This is what the National Farmers’ Union said to me when I first started my Nuffield Scholarship. They were like, “We’ve given up talking about farming because no one cares. We talk about food and that makes us sexy.”

Where does media, like the BBC, come in?

I would like to see a documentary come out about Africa’s promised Green Revolution, because I just think it’s huge and the pictures would be amazing and the stories are amazing. I met a guy from Ghana who grew up on a cocoa farm and never tasted chocolate until he was 22 and I grew up eating chocolate every day and I’ve never seen a cocoa plant to this day. I think the juxtaposition between the two worlds and how different our experiences are is fascinating.  I would love to see a documentary or a season on the BBC just as they did with China, just as they did with India. We had a week of programs looking at what we called BBC’s China Season. We did food and transport and politics and economics right across all platforms, TV, radio, online. I want to do that for African agriculture specifically. It probably won’t be to the similar scale, but in the same mould.

Have you seen media programmes that got you thinking, “that’s innovative. I like it”?

As part of my Nuffield Farming Scholarship, I was looking at how the media communicates farming to the public.  I visited Kenya, Denmark, France, Belgium, Ireland and the United States to compare how media coverage differs between very urbanized countries that are not at all reliant on agriculture like Belgium and countries that are heavily reliant on agriculture such as Kenya. I discovered programs like Shamba Shape Up and Mali Shambani and Seeds of Gold in Kenya that provide media extension. Such programmes do not exist in Europe.

What is your connection with farming?

I am a farmer’s daughter. I come from an upland farm on the beautiful Welsh-Shropshire border and a long line of farmers; at least five generations. We have 300 breeding ewes and a small suckler herd on about 200 acres, which is part-owned and part-tenanted. This might sound like much in Africa but is very small by UK and European standards.

I have been a journalist for about 15 years. I started off in general news in newspapers but I knew that I wanted to specialize in agriculture because nobody is doing it in the UK. Everyone wants to do war correspondence or finance or something like that. I wanted to do farming.

I am a 2016 Nuffield Scholar. My work will be published in autumn 2017 talking about the disconnect between media and agriculture in the UK and how lessons from around the world can help us to have a better relationship.

 

TurnTables is a new interview-based feature that will seek to tell the agriculture story through the eyes of journalists who bring stories of the world to us. They have interviewed farmers, teachers, scientists, Heads of State, business captains and many people in-between. It’s time to hear what they think.

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