Benedetta Kyengo's Mission to Revitalise Farming in Kenya

Harvesting Resilience

Photocredit: Biovision

Within sustainability and social change, stories often emerge that inspire and challenge the status quo. One such narrative is that of University College Utrecht alumna Benedetta (Bena) Kyengo ‘15, a determined advocate for sustainable living and equitable development. Bena is the founder of Feedback to the Future, an organisation committed to fostering resilient communities in Kenya and East Africa through regenerative practices and collaborative partnerships. Her journey from humble beginnings to a force for change encapsulates resilience, determination, and a commitment to making a difference.

Bena grew up in the slums of Nairobi. Witnessing the challenges faced by her community, she became actively involved in initiatives aimed at its betterment. Her passion for uplifting her community led her to establish an NGO called Mukuru Talent Development, dedicated to providing educational support to children. Through her organisation offering internships to participants of the UCU East Africa Programme, Bena became connected with UCU. Through academic achievements and community fundraising efforts, she enrolled at UCU in 2012. At UCU, she majored in geography and political science with a minor in anthropology and engaged in campus discussions around permaculture and climate change. She fostered connections with fellow students and faculty members and extended her network beyond campus.

After graduating in 2015, Bena returned to her grandmother’s land after many years. When she arrived, she was heartbroken; the place where she found solace during her childhood among thriving and abundant vegetation was now barren and depleted. Swayed by agricultural consultants, her grandmother had switched to monoculture farming, impoverishing the soil and impacting her livelihood. At that time, the government encouraged small farming families to switch to monoculture cash crop farming which were detrimental. This experience intensified Bena’s passion for tackling social and climate-related issues, particularly in African regions. She returned to Utrecht to pursue a master in Geoscience in Sustainable Business and Innovations, delving into topics like sustainability and the circular economy. Throughout her studies at UCU and UU, Bena gained valuable perspectives on how her homeland was perceived and addressed globally and was determined to effect tangible change in Kenya.

From barren to abundant

Then and now, Kenya's population has been rapidly expanding. Currently at 57 million and projected to reach 83 million by 2050, the nation faces imminent socio-economic challenges, including unemployment and food shortages. Climate change exacerbates these issues, alongside large-scale farming practices reliant on intensive fertilizers and pesticides, leading to challenges like drought and soil depletion. Therefore, there is an urgent need to adopt alternative farming methods, such as regenerative agriculture, which focuses on restoring vital resources like water, soil, biodiversity, and air quality.

Inspired by the urgency of addressing climate change and food insecurity in the area she grew up, Bena resolved to return to Kenya and make a difference firsthand. “I decided to go back to Kenya. Every time I went to the village and saw how the situation was, especially when people could not feed themselves, it was the worst. Hunger is the worst poverty you can ever have. It takes away their dignity. If you come to the Netherlands and see the poor population, and then you think of poor people back in Kenya—they don't live like humans. I don't even think animals in the Netherlands have such a life.”

Hunger is the worst poverty you can ever have. It takes away [people's] dignity.

Bena’s vision to helping her region began to take shape when she bought 5 acres of land in Kwa Miui Village in Makueni county, calling it Ing'alatani (a place deemed incapable of growth). “I had this big piece of land, and it was just lying there. So, I decided to go and give it a purpose.” She immersed herself in hands-on learning, taking permaculture courses, learning about food forestry, and seeking knowledge from experts like Geoff Lawton and Elaine Ingham in permaculture and soil management. She was adamant about working on Ing'alatani with the local community and farmers to transform it, designing a 'living lab', where experimentation and learning go hand in hand. "There was so much curiosity and people were like, what is this? I was explaining to them about climate change and all that. And then you realize that people don't know. They have no clue what you’re talking about," reflects Bena. “They didn’t understand how they went for three seasons without harvesting anything. I realised there was a need for knowledge. They actually requested that I come and teach them all of the things I was talking about.”

In 2020, Bena founded Feedback to the Future to empower small-scale farmers in East Africa through regenerative farming methods like food forest cultivation, ground cover planting, composting, and rainwater collection, aiming to address climate change, biodiversity loss, and poverty. Responding to community request for knowledge, Bena and her co-founders developed a training programme designed as a blended learning approach to introduce basic food forestry concepts and aimed to make sustainable agriculture accessible to all. Over time, the training evolved to focus on syntropic agroforestry, a simpler and more practical approach for farmers.

Photocredit: Benedetta Kyengo

Throughout the transformation of Ing'alatani, Bena and the community faced challenges such as La Niña, a severe 3-year-long drought. Intensive planting efforts ensued, albeit with careful water management due to scarcity. The primary focus shifted from growth to survival for the planted trees as they implemented mulching and innovative solutions like drip irrigation using recycled liquor bottles. Their perseverance bore fruit as the rains finally arrived in March 2023, breathing life into the arid land. “It was so much hard work. I really admire the team on the ground because they were so dedicated. For two years, they made sure that these trees survived, and then, luckily, it rained. And that's where you see the magic of nature!" she recounts. "Because within one month, you could see a big difference. The trees were growing like crazy because the roots had already developed. The rain did not go for long, but after one month, you couldn't see to the other side!”

The transformation was not merely physical but also symbolic. "This is what nature gives you. It rewards you for treating it well and allowing it to just be what it is supposed to be. We were struggling, and the farmers could see this. But during the drought, Ing'alatani was the only green place you could find in the whole area. Everything had turned brown. Even birds and small animals had moved to our sites because that was the only place where they could find at least something to eat. So now, it is a fully grown food forest, meaning it is doable if there isn’t rain and within a very short time. It is very, very possible to make the transition, and we learned so much on this journey," Bena affirms. 

This is what nature gives you. It rewards you for treating it well and allowing it to just be what it is supposed to be... Even birds and small animals had moved to our sites because that was the only place where they could find at least something to eat.

Empowering communities

Photocredit: SkillEd

Reflecting on the remarkable strides, it is evident that Bena’s efforts have left a lasting mark on her community. With nearly 700 farmers trained to date and over 100 actively implementing sustainable practices, the impact is tangible and widespread. The success of these initiatives hinges not only on training but also on continued support and engagement. Her team has grown to 14 members, supported by funding which enables them to work tirelessly on the ground. "We don't just train farmers. We visit them regularly to see how their systems are doing. We take them step by step through the implementation," she explains. This hands-on approach ensures that farmers not only learn, but also successfully apply their newfound knowledge, creating a ripple effect of positive change.

They have also established a network of trainers within communities, ensuring the spread of knowledge and support to every corner. "We are increasing the diameter of our operation," Bena explains, emphasizing the importance of concentrated efforts within specific regions to achieve landscape impact. By focusing on sustainable community development within defined areas, they aim to create models that can be replicated elsewhere and tailored to local contexts. Water access is also central to the mission, as it is a fundamental resource for agricultural success in arid regions. Recognising this, the team has spearheaded initiatives to drill boreholes and construct water pans, ensuring that communities have reliable access to water for farming year-round and are able to navigate climate challenges. What started as a grassroots initiative has blossomed into a movement, with farmers embracing sustainable practices and organising themselves for collective progress.

Beyond agricultural practices, Bena's vision extends to include market linkages and equitable access to healthy food to help underserved urban slums like her own, where organic produce remains a luxury. "Poor people are left to eat the garbage that people don't want," she remarks, highlighting the need for inclusive access to nutritious food. She notes that organically and ecologically produced food is not expensive to grow, and often grows in abundance. “There is no reason why you should have a premium price on organic food. We need to have as many farmers producing as possible to meet the demand of people living in the slums because there are many. I find it very disturbing when I visit that all the organic markets in Kenya are in rich neighbourhoods. You will not find any in poor neighbourhoods. I think it's time we change that. They deserve better than that.” Through partnerships and pilot projects, she aims to make organic, healthy food accessible to all, regardless of socio-economic status.

As Bena continues her journey, she remains guided by a simple, yet powerful principle instilled during her time at UCU: "If you want to do something, just do it." Embracing experimentation, resilience, and collaboration, she exemplifies the spirit of proactive change-making, paving the way for a more sustainable and equitable future—one community at a time.

If you want to do something, just do it.

About Benedetta

Bena Kyengo is the founder of Feedback to the Future. She has been featured in Resilience Food Stories, Biovision, and SkillEd among others.