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.