Small Grants Unlocking Big Impact: A Q&A With Root Capital’s Erick Sakwa

Erick Sakwa (L) walks a field of recently harvested sorghum with a farmer during a visit to a Root Capital-financed enterprise in Kenya.
Erick Sakwa (L) walks a field of recently harvested sorghum with a farmer during a visit to a Root Capital-financed enterprise in Kenya.

At the risk of stating the obvious: Running a small business is a lot of work.

Entrepreneurs and staff—often pressed for time, money, and resources—devote most of their energy to keeping the lights on, leaving little time to address longer-term challenges. True for small and growing businesses everywhere, this is especially acute in rural communities where access to financing and training is scarce.

Over the past five years, Root Capital has worked with donor partners to provide one-time infusions of capital—what we call resilience grants—to agricultural businesses around the world. We sat down with Erick Sakwa, our Nairobi-based Impact and Advisory Manager, to learn more about the origin of this innovative program, what lessons he’s learned, and how small grants can help transform rural businesses and their communities.

Root Capital: To get started, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you come to Root Capital and what is your role here?

Erick: I grew up in rural Kenya where most people relied on agriculture for their livelihoods. I saw how smallholder farmers faced challenges in how they produced their crops and brought them to market—challenges that locked them in cycles of poverty.  After starting my career in public health and academic social science research, I transitioned to doing impact verification at international organizations. I believe that it is through impact measurement that we can understand farmers’ challenges and better design opportunities to help them overcome.

In 2016, I joined Root Capital because I strongly identified with its mission of investing in the growth of agricultural enterprises to support the farmers I grew up with. In addition to monitoring our impact in rural communities, I work on our Women in Agriculture Initiative (WAI), which promotes women’s participation, knowledge, and inclusion in agricultural enterprises.

Root Capital: Over your five years at Root Capital, you’ve managed much of our gender inclusion work in East Africa. Why is that work so important? 

Erick: Despite the fact that, in some countries, women make up as much as 80% of the agricultural labor force, they often face huge barriers to prosperity: Unequal education and training opportunities, cultural and legal restrictions to land ownership, and a lack of access to inputs, services, and credit. When we work with women to knock down these barriers, we see benefits like an increased focus on the nutritional and educational needs of children, deeper business resilience, and an increase in women’s decision-making power in the home and community.

Through the WAI, we’re evening the playing field for women entrepreneurs, employees, and farmers. And the research shows it’s working. Our forthcoming impact studies show that women farmers affiliated with Root Capital clients in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are more likely to receive technical assistance, produce more crops, and earn more income than unaffiliated women farmers.

Root Capital: In 2016, you helped deploy Root Capital’s very first Gender Equity Grants (GEGs) to agricultural enterprises in Kenya. Why did those come about and how did you work with partners to pilot them? 

Erick: We found that many businesses we worked with wanted to invest in gender inclusion, but these cash-strapped enterprises lacked the resources to make that a reality. Partnering with Value for Women (VFW) and Wagner Foundation, we launched the GEGs in Kenya to design gender-inclusive programs alongside businesses while helping offset the initial costs and minimize the enterprises’ risk.

Through interviews and workshops, we worked closely with business employees (primarily women, but also some men) to identify each business’ strengths, as well as potential areas where we could deepen gender inclusion. These tailored strategies differed between businesses but each worked to support women’s livelihoods and opportunities: a daycare center to support working mothers at a macadamia company; a program to extend microcredit to women employees so they could invest in education or launch a small businesses; crop aggregation centers so women at a grain processor wouldn’t have to travel long distances on dangerous roads. The beauty of this grant program is that each business can tackle the gender equity challenges that are most relevant and urgent to them—there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Staff at the Village Nut Company hold up a sign in front of the company's daycare center

Root Capital: What lessons have you learned from this process?

Erick: Over the years of coordinating the GEGs, I have seen these programs are best positioned for success when the whole community is involved—men and women. Our participatory process brings both men and women on board from the start, putting them in charge of identifying solutions and giving us champions across the gender divide. We also need to recognize the diverse and important roles women hold across agricultural value chains, and look for leaders serving in underappreciated roles—especially in traditionally male-dominated fields where we work. These women are our greatest allies as we strive toward an inclusive and equitable world.

I have also seen the importance of making gender-inclusion efforts context-aware, demand-driven, and client-led. When we began offering these grants in Peru, I shared with colleagues what we learned from our pilot in Kenya so they could adapt it to a very different context and make sure it translated effectively. As we’ve expanded the GEG program to businesses across Africa and Latin America, no two projects are the same, but they’re united by the common goal: improving outcomes for women in agriculture.

Root Capital: After the success of the GEGs, Root Capital has adapted that small grant model to tackle other crises like climate change and COVID-19. What has that looked like? 

Erick: Whether it’s a grant to prevent COVID-19 transmission or promote youth empowerment, the challenges are similar. The staff at many small and growing businesses are already stretched thin, and we need to balance core business operations with the implementation of these longer-term projects. We work with the business to prioritize activities that are within the scope of the staff’s capacity and are likely to have both short-term impact and the ability to be sustained in the long-term without further donor support.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses were at the height of their annual harvest, looking to buy personal protective equipment for use at their warehouses. By the time funds were disbursed, many of these businesses had finished their purchases for the year and shifted instead to implementing structural changes to their operations, like sanitization stations and plexiglass barriers. With the help of these grants, businesses were able to protect employees and farmers at a crucial time while reducing vulnerability as experts predict the virus may threaten rural communities for years to come. Businesses will continue to face pandemic-related challenges, so we are continuing to reach them with resilience grants in 2021.

Root Capital: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us Erick, and thanks for all the work you do to ensure Root Capital’s continued impact in East Africa and around the world.

Erick: Thank you.

Topics: Advisory Services | East Africa | Our Community | Staff Profiles | Women in Agriculture |

    Juma Yusuf | February 16, 2021 at 11:54 am

    That was great and quite reassuring

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    AQUILAS GNOMBLEA | February 17, 2021 at 12:03 pm

    Monsieur ,
    Nous saluons cette belle initiative qui transforme des vies . Cependant , nous souhaitons que ce projet se réalise au bénéfice des populations de l'Afrique de l'ouest . Nous voulons l'experimenter pour ameliorer les conditions de vie de nos femmes et nos familles .
    Cordialement

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    Paul GAKUMBA-Independent Consult of Root Capital based in Rwanda | February 18, 2021 at 7:34 am

    Root Capital has made Rwandan agricultural farmers proud, making their lives change positively through increase of their agricultural productivity and improvement in quality. In addition Root Capital has improved their skills and knowledge on how to deal with best agricultural Practices hence improving their standards of living.

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