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  • Department of Global Development
  • Global Development

Maria Orozco came to Cornell with a commitment to empowering farmers, namely through outreach and education that can address the ever-evolving needs of underserved and marginalized communities in our food systems. When a research opportunity arose to support educational initiatives for Kenyan farmers growing dragon fruit — a tropical fruit native to her home country of Mexico — Orozco was intrigued to connect with the international network of local farmers.

“I am driven by the possibility to close knowledge gaps by connecting growers, not just locally, but around the world,” said Orozco, a Master of Professional Studies (MPS) student in Global Development at Cornell. 

“Farmer-to-farmer education thrives because there is no other source better than a fellow farmer who has been through the same experience.”

In her fieldwork for her MPS capstone project, Orozco visited and interviewed 20 smallholder dragon fruit farmers in Kenya, speaking with farmers from different backgrounds and at various stages of dragon fruit cultivation. Through these interviews, she gathered valuable insights into their reasoning for cultivation, how they’ve learned to grow the crop in a new environment, and the unique challenges they’ve faced, from pest and disease management to variety selection and communication within farming communities.

The introduction of dragon fruit into Kenya's cropping systems holds the promise of socio-cultural and economic empowerment for farmers, increased agricultural resilience, and access to new export markets, however, there is limited research on why smallholder farmers decided to grow dragon fruit, or how they have fared in its cultivation, according to Ndunge Kiiti, Orozco’s advisor and adjunct associate professor of global development. 

“Dragon fruit could be a game changer for smallholder farmers to access the global supply chain, however, we must first understand the farmers who are cultivating it, and development implications surrounding its growing market,” Kiiti said. 

Photos from the field

In her capstone project, Orozco sought to understand grower and farm characteristics, needs and challenges, and the impacts and outcomes of Kenyan growers cultivating dragon fruit. Moreover, she explored the significance of understanding farmers' learning preferences and communication methods. She was amazed at how local farmers had already connected with and learned from a global network of dragon fruit farmers in Vietnam, the Philippines, Mexico, and the United States. 

Ultimately, Orozco hopes that the work will provide valuable information and support to dragon fruit growers in Kenya, helping them overcome challenges and improve their farming practices. By understanding how farmers most effectively learn, particularly women and youth, Orozco’s research provides a foundation for researchers at Kenyan institutions, who are working towards developing educational materials, translated into local languages, that can assist farmers in cultivating dragon fruit. 

Across all areas of her work, Orozco prioritizes education and extension strategies for sustainable farming and entrepreneurial systems. 

"Empowering farmers through knowledge-sharing and collaboration is key to overcoming challenges in agriculture,” said Orozco. “By fostering connections and learning from each other's experiences, we can create a stronger and more resilient farming community." 

After graduation, Orozco will join the University of California’s Organic Agriculture Institute as an Education and Mentorship Coordinator. In the new role, Orozco will develop education and mentorship programs for organic farmers, aspiring growers, underserved and socially disadvantaged farmers, organic consultants and certifiers, advocacy organizations, public agencies, regulators, and policymakers. “I’m also really looking forward to coordinating a new student field course on agroecology and sustainable agriculture, facilitating an organic mentorship network, and providing technical assistance to transitioning organic farmers,” Orozco added. She also hopes to continue supporting and engaging with her international network of farmers—especially in Kenya and Mexico.

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