Alex Gerard Of Tiyeni and Carl Telford Of Consortium for Battery Innovation On How Farmers And The Ag Industry Are Adapting To The Disruptions Caused By Climate And World Events

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Martita Mestey
Authority Magazine
Published in
12 min readMay 25


Bio-Charing is a more recent advancement in technologies which help farmers participate in sequestration of carbon into the soil. Carbon sequestration is also done through planting and managing trees. The government should continue with the agenda of catchment management as well as bio-Charing.

The war in Ukraine, the ongoing pandemic, and catastrophic climate events have contributed to a global food crisis. Farmers and Ag Industry workers are being challenged to respond and adapt to these disruptions. In this interview series, we’re speaking with leaders in the farming and Ag industries who can shed light on how they’re navigating these challenges and adapting to the disruptions caused by climate and world events. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Alex and Carl from the AfTrak project.

Alex Gerard and Carl Telford are both part of an ambitious micro-tractor project called AfTrak. This project aims to sensitively mechanize a new farming technique in Malawi. Alex is executive director of Tiyeni, a UK charity that has developed and rolled out a revolutionary technique called Deep Bed Farming, which can help farmers improve soil health, crop yields, and assist water usage. Project leader Carl has a 20-year background in technology strategy and works for the Consortium for Battery Innovation (CBI). CBI are working with Tiyeni and Loughborough University to develop a cost effective, solar-powered micro tractor to facilitate DBF.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this career path?

Alex: I have always had a fascination of the natural world and how humans interact with it. For a long time, I worked in marine biology internationally and was curator of a major sea life centre in the UK, becaming an expert in sharks. Following some work in Africa for an animal sanctuary, I joined Tiyeni. My work over the years has focused on the strategic development of organisations, and establishing senior stakeholder adoption within international development, the public health sector, and public parks.

Carl: My experience is so very different to Alex’s — indeed, AfTrak is only the second major agricultural project I’ve been involved with in my career. I started as a materials engineer, then worked in technology strategy for over 15 years for a Silicon-Valley-based SME and a UK automotive consultancy. Basically, I helped large companies, governments, and NGOs plan what they were going to do in 15–20 years’ time. I joined CBI in 2021 because I’d had enough of living in the future and wanted to make a difference today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

Alex: One day, my wife told me we had an opportunity to leave the UK to both run a primate charity in Nigeria. We just went for it. This spur of the moment decision, and the amazing experience we had there, started my love for Africa.

Carl: I was once asked to deliver a presentation to a committee at a CIA facility. As I was walking though the halls, I noticed several signs instructing personnel not to discuss work matters, because there were foreign visitors in the building. I asked my host how many visitors and the reply came: “Oh, just you.” Really? “Yes, I’m serious.” So I can say that, for a few hours, I stopped the CIA talking. Coincidentally, the presentation was about disruptive tech and included a bit about future Ag.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Carl: You pick two Alex, and I’ll pick a third.

Alex: OK, I’ll pick Resilience and Empathy. Resilience because when you are young, you can take on everything, but time and experience shows you how to adapt and respond to things, and crucially provide stable support for your team and partners. Small charities go through tough times, where money is limited, but you must remain resilient to support your team and the people we help. And Empathy: I have spent much of my career in the charity and conservation sectors. The people I have supported over the years have extraordinary lives and experiences, each very different, and that goes for the teams that work with them.

Carl: Being a better listener. People tend to focus on talking — and yes I do talk a lot — but I believe listening is more important. Then you better understand the people you interact with. You need to understand what makes people tick, their communication preferences, create space to reflect, and thus understand collective goals. I did a lot of work in Japan with major car companies, and the language and cultural differences slowed down communications. But it did teach me to be patient, to listen very carefully, and to ask questions when something was unclear… so you can listen some more!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Alex: “It’s surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth,” David Attenborough. He has been my inspiration since I watched the first episode of Life on Earth in 1979. These words inspire me and help me to better understand the small and big picture, and the challenges that exist to create a sustainable future for all life.

Carl: My life lesson quote is probably Claude Debussy: ‘Music is the space between the notes.’ Sometimes we focus too much on individual elements or the obvious — major events, projects, purchases (dare I say it)–and not the bits in between. The continuous, the unplanned, the everyday. Life is neither a highlight reel nor video short.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

Alex: The element of my work that I am most proud of is how a small charity like Tiyeni can have a bigger, and more sustained impact than many larger ones. I am proud that our DBF farming method has been formally adopted by the Malawian Government, the only charity to achieve this!

Carl: Just to concur with Alex. I’m very proud to be working on this project and hopefully making a real positive impact for farmers and Ag in general. The idea for the project came from Dr Jonathan Wilson from Loughborough University — we were both on a trip to Malawi with Innovate UK, and he came up with the idea for a small battery tractor over dinner one evening. It just grew from there, and once Alex and the Tiyeni team got involved it became serious.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘How Farmers and the Ag Industry Are Adapting to the Disruptions Caused by Climate and World Events’. This might be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to expressly spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few examples of why and how climate change is causing disruptions to agriculture?

We think that a majority of global farmland is not climate resilient, with groundwater levels at their lowest, soil erosion at an unsustainable rate, and industrial scale habitat loss. Seasons are changing and the weather is becoming more unpredictable and extreme. Again, smallholder farmers are hit the worst, as they have less protection from largescale climate and political events. Cyclone Freddy hit East Africa earlier this year, killing thousands and destroying livelihoods, and the worst hit areas offered limited climate resilience. A similar storm hit the same region last year and something similar will come again next year.

What about world events? Can you share with our readers a few examples of why and how world events and geopolitical choices cause disruptions to agriculture?

The political landscape around agriculture is complex and interconnected. The war in Ukraine is having huge impacts in the places like Africa, who rely on fuel, fertilizers, and cooking oil. These are all being limited or made prohibitively expensive due to the war. This has hit the smallholder farmers the hardest, resulting in a reduction in national agricultural output and a rise in food insecurity.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share your “5 Things Farmers and Ag Industry Workers Can Do to Adapt to the Disruptions Caused by Climate and World Events”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

We consulted Loughborough’s Wilson, and Isaac Chavula, who is Tiyeni’s Country Director for Malawi. Isaac has 20 years of working with international NGOs implementing food security, sustainable livelihoods, water and sanitation and natural management projects. Isaac told us:

1. Adoption of innovative sustainable technologies. For instance, in Malawi the government conducted research on the Deep Bed Farming system for 3 years and in the end, the government approved the technology (DBF, on 16th Dec 2021) to allow every farmer to be trained in DBF and adopt it. Major strengths of the technology were in rainwater harvesting, control of erosion and more than doubling yields even in year one of practice. Among other good traits, this method of managing rainwater and soils does not promote synthetic or inorganic fertilizers and use of inorganic chemical is discouraged. More than 20,500 farmers who practice DBF are reaping the benefits of the technology by moving out of food and income poverty in the country. In addition, we see opportunities for advanced energy storage technologies to utilise solar power in powering machinery — just like in the AfTrak project. There are also opportunities to recycle or repurpose batteries, especially 12V lead batteries, to form energy storage systems that can provide power for some tasks on the farm.

2. Consumption of locally produced foods. Farmers must focus on growing local foods which do not depend on complicated market chains to obtain seed. This is important in mitigating the effects of market disruptions due to wars and conflicts like the Ukraine/Russia, Sudan, etc. If farmers depend on seed purchased from the seed suppliers to grow crops to survive, any disruption to market forces leading to failure of seed suppliers to transport and sell seed would put the lives of millions of smallholders at risk of starvation. Farmers who adopt the Deep Bed Farming system are encouraged to grow local varieties so that they can keep seed to plant the next season. They are trained to make compost manure, plant leguminous crops in rotation or mixed planting to enrich soils, they are trained to construct contour marker ridges and flat-topped planting beds and furrow aligned to contour to harvest rainwater and prevent soil erosion. These initiatives help them grow robust and more resilient crops that withstand water stress due to drought, resist pest and disease attacks much better, to still more than double the yields. When farmers grow on ridges the average yields average 2 tons per hectare while if they grow on Deep Beds, they get an average of 8 tons per hectare.

3. Efficient utilization of resources. Water and soil are among the most important resources of production in agriculturally based economies like Malawi’s. Farmers must therefore utilise the scarce resources more efficiently to optimise production. Tiyeni is training thousands of farmers each year in DBF and support them so that they can harvest rainwater and use it for crop production. Farmers can harvest enough crop yields and get surplus which they sell for more income. Tiyeni is also training farmers in the utilization of human fecal matter and urine to produce biofertilizers. Though adoption is slowly picking up because of challenges of attitude and cultural beliefs, and the fact that farmers use own funds for construction of ELSaN toilets, the numbers of those who have toilets and have started harvesting fertilizers is steadily increasing. In terms of machinery, we must stress the importance of simple, robust, recyclable machinery, such as that being developed through the AfTrak project. Batteries and energy storage can also help farmers adapt to changing conditions whether it’s from climate or outside events. Farmers in all countriesand regions can use a renewable energy plus battery storage up to power systems on distant areas of their agricultural operations. Key examples include solar powered water pumps and irrigation controllers.

4. Practicing integrated farming, with a focus on trees — orchards, agroforestry, village forests through regeneration of indigenous vegetation, etc. Tiyeni is supporting government agenda of catchment management and integrated farming to ensure the majority of DBF farmers become self-sufficient. Farmers are now diversifying and integrating by planting agroforestry tree, green manure cover crops, creating orchards for fruits and vegetables to enrich their diets as well as have more greener environments that bring down temperatures and recycle air. The more there is ground cover the more productive the soils become as beneficial micro and macro-organisms flourish in soils below.

5. Bio-Charing is a more recent advancement in technologies which help farmers participate in sequestration of carbon into the soil. Carbon sequestration is also done through planting and managing trees. The government should continue with the agenda of catchment management as well as bio-Charing. The Malawi government should put in place frameworks that guide trading of carbon credits in Malawi. More farmers would become attracted to a venture into carbon sequestering if the financials become more attractive.

How has technology played a role in helping farmers and the Ag Industry adapt to the disruptions caused by climate and world events? Can you share a few examples?”

Technology has a vital role to play, other than sustainable mechanization such as AfTrak, tech that can predict weather pattern at a local level can support farmers to maximise the growing season and provide warnings of extreme weather. Systems that support trade through selling on local, national, and international markets can massively boost the economy and reduce food waste and help support farmers to predict trends in crop demand.

With greater attention being placed on the importance of the farming and Ag industries, as well as technological advancements, what do you predict will be different about the farming and Ag sectors over the next ten years?

Tiyeni’s hope is that greater focus will be on smallholder farmers and cooperatives. As most farming is done by smallholder farming, industry needs to embrace this and scale down mega farms. Smallholder farming supports much more than just the crops they produce. They create resilient communities, global political independence, entrepreneurial led economies, habitat restoration and species diversity. In short, they provide a sustainable and food secure future.

The idea of farming has a very romantic and idyllic character to it, especially to some people living in a busy cosmopolitan context. Do you think now would be a good time for younger people with no farming history to get involved in the farming industry? Can you explain what you mean?

Yes and no! Farming is hard, and to make a living is even harder. In the UK, most farmers have supplementary incomes or rely on diversification to support what they do. Food is an under-valued commodity that often highlights social inequality. That said, there is a lot of entrepreneurial innovation around farming, and the move to make countries more resilient to external and climatic factors opens many opportunities in the agricultural sector. For many it is an exciting time but for others in the developing world, more is needed to support young farmers to make a living, as many are moving away from it.

Where should a young person start if they would like to “get into” farming?

Find something you enjoy, like a particular crop or working with animals, and a mentor to show you the way — drawing out what skills you have that could be transferrable.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 😊

Alex: It must be David Attenborough. He has been a constant in my life since I was a child, he inspired me to work in conservation, and still does today. He taught me to always find wonder in everything, but to challenge what is going wrong in the natural world and to champion how humans can live in harmony with it. He has been at the center of how our world has changed over the last 75 years and has seen more than most. His humble, reflective, and insightful perspective would make for the perfect breakfast companion.

Carl: Firstly, I’d prefer it to be lunch. OK, this answer is a copout, but has a serious side, and you did mention the US. It would be a good friend of mine who lives in California, because I don’t see enough of him these days. (Martin, if you’re reading this, we must have lunch. Life moves fast.)

How can our readers further follow your work online?


This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.