Uplifting East Africa’s Rural Smallholder Farmers

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Stephanie HansonIn a guest entry for Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet blog, One Acre Fund's Stephanie Hanson describes the four-year-old organization's efforts in Kenya and Rwanda to provide rural smallholder farmers with the tools to feed their families and increase their incomes.

Most people in sub-Saharan Africa are farmers with small pieces of land, large families, and poor crop yields. Their primary occupation is growing food, yet many do not grow enough to feed their families.

One Acre Fund was founded in 2006 to serve these farmers. Our mission is to provide rural smallholder farmers with the tools they need to feed their families and to increase their incomes. We currently work with about 23,000 farmers in Kenya and Rwanda, and hope to reach 40,000 farmers by 2011.

From the beginning, we have been talking to farmers to understand what they need to succeed. We knew that farmers needed seed and fertilizer, but we discovered that they also needed financing to purchase those inputs, as well as education on how to use them. And, they needed access to a market to sell their crop after harvest.

One Acre Fund offers a service model that addresses each of these needs: financing, farm inputs, education, and market access. When a farmer enrolls with One Acre Fund, she joins as part of a group of 6-12 farmers. She receives an in-kind loan of seed and fertilizer, which is guaranteed by her group members. One Acre Fund delivers this seed and fertilizer to a market point within two kilometers of where she lives, and a field officer provides in-field training on land preparation, planting, fertilizer application, and weeding.

Over the course of the season, the field officer monitors the farmer's fields. Then, at the end of the season, he trains her on how to harvest and store her crop. One Acre Fund also offers a harvest buyback program that farmers can participate in if they choose. Final loan repayment is several weeks after harvest; 98 percent of our farmers repay their loans.

Before they joined One Acre Fund, many of our farmers in Kenya were harvesting five bags of maize from a half acre of land. After joining One Acre Fund, their harvests typically increase to 12-15 bags of maize from the same half acre. This represents a doubling in farm profit per planted acre-twice as much income from the same amount of land.

Our farmers use this additional income to feed their families, pay school fees and health expenses, and buy livestock. Their long-term goals, however, are much bigger. At the first training session of the season, our field officers ask the farmers to write down the dreams they hope to achieve if they have a good harvest. This January, I attended some of these trainings. Some farmers dreamed of building new houses, buying cars, or opening small businesses. One farmer, Martha Barasa, dreamed of buying a posha mill to grind maize into flour. Another, Simon Munai, dreamed of opening a private school to educate the community's children.

These dreams are the force that drives our field officers to spend six days a week in the field with their farmers. They are the force that motivates our innovation team to develop improvements to our program model, and the force that keeps our leadership team-including One Acre Fund's founder-based in rural Kenya and Rwanda.

One Acre Fund is part of the new movement of nonprofits that approaches development work with business strategy and market-based solutions. We are rigorous about evaluating our work and we are always thinking about whether our programs can be replicated to serve millions of farmers. We focus on three primary metrics: scale, impact, and sustainability. We aim to reach a lot of people, to have high-quality impact, and to do so cost-effectively.

By 2020, we hope to serve 1 million farmers. We plan to reach this goal through an unflagging focus on customer service: building strong relationships and understanding what our farmers want and need. We are lucky enough to be able to draw on the advice and accomplishments of other talented individuals and innovative organizations that are working to spur a Green Revolution in Africa. Our contribution to this revolution can be summarized in two words: Farmers First.

Visit Worldwatch's Nourishing the Planet blog to learn more about small-scale farmer projects across Kenya, Rwanda, and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

Stephanie Hanson is the director of policy and outreach at One Acre Fund

This article originally appeared on the Worldwatch Institute blog Nourishing the Planet. For permission to republish this report, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org