Farmers in Belgium and Africa face the same challenges

28 May 2024
“How sustainably do we farm in Flanders? What are the pros and cons of our industrial agriculture? Can we still get young people excited about the profession of farming? And are we really doing that much better with agriculture than they are in the South?”

With these questions, KBC volunteer Karen Martens looks back at her first assignment for BRS. That assignment took her to Uganda, where she participated in a workshop on agrofinancing, taking as a starting point her experience as a relationship manager at KBC for farmers and horticulturists. 

Sharing my passion

“BRS organised this international workshop for microfinancing institutions (MFIs) and for organisations that provide technical assistance to MFIs and to farmers and farmers’ organisations. Participants came from Uganda, Kenya, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania. They exchanged their experiences on the subjects of risk management, digitalisation, sustainability and green investments and the organisation of granting loans. The relationship with the customer was also discussed at length.

As a relationship manager at KBC, I have been listening to farmers’ needs for many years now. I talk with them about their banking and credit situations. It just so happens that I grew up on a farm myself, a family farm with livestock and arable farming, and farming has always been my passion. So I very much wanted to share my knowledge and experience with farmers from the South. 


At the participants’ request, I explained how a loan-granting interview takes place at our company. And how we respond to the needs of our customers. For example, by offering diversified products and aligning our repayment plan with the farmer’s income flow. We also spent a while discussing the information you need to assess your customers’ creditworthiness. And we exchanged experience on decision structures and how they evolve as loans grow. 

A profession to be proud of

I also met some farmers who are customers of the Ugandan host organisation. Often, young people would end up in agriculture due to a lack of other opportunities. The MFI transforms this negative choice into a positive one. By bringing farmers together in cooperatives and supporting them with training and micro-credits, it lifts them up to a higher level. As a result, their life as farmers becomes something to be proud of. 

In our part of the world too, farmers in the past did not always choose the farming profession with their full conviction. Not infrequently, they simply took over their parents’ business because it was expected. Meanwhile, many of our customers do choose farming with their heart and soul. And that’s something we want to encourage. In the end, it remains a wonderful profession. 

The downside of big buyers

And I discovered even more common ground between the agricultural sector here and in East Africa. For example, I spoke with a farmer from Ethiopia who cultivates grain for a large brewery. That brewery obliges him to work with seeds and fertilisers it chooses and to which it owns the rights. The farmer may only grow that specified particular variety of grain, even if it exhausts the soil, is less nutritious and more susceptible to diseases. This increasing dependence on large buyers is very recognisable. Both here and in Africa, farmers face the challenge of preserving their freedom of choice. And organising their sales in such a way that not all the profits go to the big buyers. 

Pioneers like my mother

There are also parallels to be drawn historically. Fifty years ago, my mother was one of the first women to fight to keep her own job, even though she was married to a farmer. The women I met in Uganda were often still very dependent on their husbands. The farm and lands there have always been in their husband’s name. As women, they own nothing, which makes them ineligible for a loan at a regular bank. 
Thanks to microfinancing, this is gradually changing. Women unite in cooperatives and take out group loans. With those loans, they buy seeds with which they grow and sell vegetables themselves. The MFI assists them in managing their financial affairs. Like my mother, young Ugandan women are increasingly choosing to have their own job and income. But there is still a long way to go. 


Looking back at my first BRS assignment, I realise that I set out with the idea that Belgian agriculture is much more advanced than African agriculture. Gradually, I discovered that we can learn just as much from them. That surprised me. I look more critically at our own agriculture now and I see that there are many things to think about here too. All in all, it’s an experience I would recommend to anyone!”