Juliani: Why farming is just as cool as music

He is one of Kenya’s most celebrated musicians, and has won accolades and several awards at home and abroad.  Juliani, a gospel singer with three albums under his belt and whose real name is Julius  Owino, now has another calling that he  dedicates a lot of his time and talent to: he  is on a mission to boost farming and enhance  national food security.

Juliani has been gaining prominence  for his commitment to social causes and  has been in the forefront in environmental  campaigns such as the climate change sensitization  across the continent; and peace  initiatives.    Lately, the soft-spoken gospel music star has been singing praises to farming, acknowledging a sector that is the source of  livelihood for over 80 per cent of the population.  “We (Kenyans) are misinformed about  agriculture. I didn’t know that it could be  a great career choice, and that it could be  a cool job, until they called it agribusiness,”  says Juliani.  He was speaking during an interview  with Smart Farmer.  “Apart from the very rich large-scale  farmers with large tracts of land, who are  very few, we thought farming was for the  poor illiterate people and others willing to  soil their hands,” adds the gospel artiste.  Juliani, who born and raised in Nairobi’s  Dandora estate in the Eastlands, says he  has come to learn that agribusiness is a  whole world of things. “You don’t have to  lift up a jembe (hoe) to be a farmer,” he says.  The Amiran Kenya ‘Farming is Cool’ ambassador  has learnt a lot and likes it. “This  is a sector that involves whole value chains.  You can choose to sell inputs, to be in marketing,  transportation, to add value to produce  or even work on the farm, but it must  be done professionally.”

The US Talanta Awards winner of the  coveted ‘Male Artist of the Year’ in 2008,  Juliani, and a year later scooped two Kenyan  Groove awards, including ‘Hip-hop Song of  the Year’ and ‘Album of the Year’.  In 2009, he represented Kenya alongside others at the 2009 UN Climate Change  Conference in Copenhagen and has also  supported causes such as the World Vision  Peace Tour, and Vina Na Maana (a  campaign against Economic Partnership  Agreements.    Juliani is advocating for a change of  attitude, especially among the youth of  Kenya to begin to see farming and value  it as a rewarding business.  “Like music, it is not just a hobby.  You don’t do it just because you have  land. Some people decide that they will  put maize here, beans there, vegetables  here…without any planning. That is the  old way of doing things. Farming must be  planned like any other business,” says the  talented rapper and farming activist.

Today, there is a clamor, an interest, in  fact, a revolution taking place in the agricultural  sector. Over the years, the tempo  has been building up and the movement  has now become clearly evident.    Agriculture is no longer boring, it is the  new ‘cool’, and agribusiness is the name of  the revolution.  Everywhere you go; it is among the top  topics of discussion. Agriculture talk is in  the banking halls, in schools, in offices  and so on.  The interest is high. The old, the young,  men and women are all upbeat about  business on the farm.    The mainstream media have also belatedly  picked it up and it is getting wide coverage  with more stories and broadcasts on  farming, on almost all the TV stations,  and their numerous channels  and in the newspapers.  Agriculture courses are becoming more  popular even in the universities, and other  institutions that did not care about this  not long ago have agriculture to their list  of courses and disciplines.

The government has also taken the cue  and is pumping billions into the sector.  The aim is to push agriculture from subsistence  to agribusiness.  There are also many non-governmental  and private organizations promoting the  sector, while the number of agricultural  exhibitions, besides the annual Agricultural  Society of Kenya shows, has seen an  unprecedented increase.    Yet, this is a sector that only about five  years ago, was considered to be for the old  and only fit for subsistence. It had little  appeal and anyone talking about going  to the farm seemed to be pursuing a lost  cause: It was a poor man’s job, many believed.  Today, agriculture has become trendy,  what with many young people clamoring  for it after completing their university  education.

So what changed? 

Attitude! There has been a realisation  that agriculture can be as rewarding as  any other commercial business if done  right. And this led to various actors, including  media, such as Smart Farmer  Magazine, NGOs, corporates, government  and others creating an avid interest in the  sector.

Among those who have  played a role in getting youth  interested is Juliani.  “Niko njaa nasiwezi karanga,  hohehahe shagalabaghala…” are  some of his famous lyrics.  Juliani is known for his  gospel hits and his deep lyrics  attracting people of different  ages, but especially youth.  His songs cover diverse issues  affecting the society. He  is lauded for his bold stand  against corruption, which he  campaigns against through  his music.  But his promotion of agriculture  is putting him a notch  higher. Juliani has come to be  associated with agribusiness  for championing the cause.  “If we, young people, do not  get involved in farming, how  will we be able to feed ourselves  in years to come? We  need to give it the attention it  deserves to be able to feed  our country for generations  to come,” he said.  He has lent his stardom  to the cause, and  is helping to change mindsets  and prove to youth that  modern agribusiness is a respectable  and ‘cool’ profession  that should be practiced like  any other business.  But at what point do music  and agriculture mix? And why  would a musician even bother  to promote agriculture?  “Music has a lot of influence.  It is about packaging a message  that makes it easier for all  to understand. Even farmers  listen to music. Young people  listen to music. They need to  hear the message from the  channels that they love, and  music is one of them,” says Juliani.  As a musician, he believes  he has a social responsibility.

“A lot of the people who listen  to us are youth. If we can connect  young people with information  through music, why  not?” he quips. “I am exposed  to farming, and I need to share  what I have, and youth are listening  to us.”  In 2013, Juliani was appointed  Amiran’s ‘Farming is  Cool’ ambassador, an initiative  that has captured the hearts  and souls of thousands of Kenyan  youth.  He has visited six counties,  including Machakos, Nairobi,  Eldoret, and Mombasa, advocating  for a change of mindset  towards agriculture. During  these events, Juliani engages  the people through seminars  and music concerts.  But the musician first had  to learn about agriculture and  hone his skills for the project.  “We were meeting young people  interested in farming, did  workshops, seminars, training  and media campaigns  that included interviews as we  traversed across the country,”  he said.

According to Mr Gilad Millo,  whose brainchild the ‘Farming  is Cool Initiative’ is, “the impact  has been tremendous and  it is clear that Kenyan youth  have a more focused view of  agribusiness than their counterparts  elsewhere in Africa.”  “You get the responses later,”  says Juliani about the impact  of the campaign. “Many young  people keep calling and emailing  me. We are seeing more  young people getting interested  in agriculture.”  Through ‘Farming is Cool’  large numbers of youth are  connected on the ground and  through social media, says Juliani.  Wherever he goes, curious  young people stop and ask  him about farming and technical  subjects such as drip irrigation,  greenhouse farming and  how to raise money to start  their own businesses.  “It is proof that we have had  an impact, but there is still a  gap that needs to be filled, an  information gap.”  It was Mr Millo, who has  since moved to Balton CP, the  mother company of Amiran, as  group head of business development  and public relations,  who identified Juliani for the  campaign, and two years after  recruiting the musician, he  still considers him a godsend.  “Juliani is known as the conscience of the street and he is more connected to the needs  and issues that trouble Kenya’s  youth more than anyone else  I’ve met” says the former Israeli  diplomat, who has made Kenya  his home.

Mr Millo is also beginning to  make a name for himself in the  music industry with his song,  ‘Unajua’ which is being played  in every radio station.  “Juliani made youth take  a closer look at agribusiness,  which remains the most available  means of wealth creation  in Africa,” Mr Millo explains.  He challenges youth to lift  themselves from poverty and  frustration by taking advantage  of loans, technologies and  knowledge available at Amiran  and like- minded partners.  Today, he adds, Kenyan youth  are more aware of the opportunities  in modern agribusiness.  The campaign was launched  in 2011 by Amiran Kenya.  The company and its partners,  including the government,  donors and NGOs and  private sector, have provided  the Amiran Farmers Kit (AFK)  to over 1,000 primary and secondary  schools and more than  300 youth polytechnics.  This has exposed over 3 million  youth to modern agribusiness  using the most advanced,  cutting edge technologies and  methods and will go a long way  in ensuring food security.  “Youth are energetic, they are  passionate; they are ambitious and they are entrepreneurs,” explains.

Mr Millo, adding that “if  Africa is to achieve food security  and sustainable economic  growth, youth should be considered  as critical players.”  Kenyan youth talk openly  about agribusiness, are interested  in modern technologies,  hold conversations and run  businesses online, buying and  selling in all areas of the sector.  This was not the case five years  ago and ‘Farming is Cool’ and  Juliani have played a big part  in it.  The initiative is being replicated  by NGOs, donors, governments  and farmers throughout  Africa. It is has now been coined  as “Farming is Cool Africa” and  is being run by Balton CP.  But could it be all talk and  music with Juliani and nothing  practical?  “I am not yet a farmer yet,” he  said during the interview. “But  I am getting into it pretty soon.  I have the land, the skill and  know-how and I am now preparing  to join a farming club,”  says the musician.  “I will grow crops and keep  livestock. But I will do it as a serious  business. If you farm scientifically  where you can anticipate  results, then you will be to  do other things with your time,”  he adds, on being asked how he  he hopes to create a balance between  farming and music.