5 Questions with One Acre Fund

Social Justice

Lucas Oliver Oswald

Since 2006, One Acre Fund has been helping the farming families in East Africa—a notoriously impoverished and vulnerable demographic—improve their craft by supplying them with basic agricultural tools and practices. Now operating in Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda, the organization has achieved the ultimate goal of a non-profit: a proven, easily scalable, and highly effective model for improving quality of life.

Emerson Collective’s Lucas Oliver Oswald sat down with One Acre Fund Founder Andrew Youn to discuss the future of Africa’s agriculture, how One Acre Fund has reached 380,000 families in ten years, and how they plan to reach more than a million by 2020.

Photos provided by Hailey Tucker | One Acre Fund.

How did One Acre Fund begin and how has the model evolved over time?

One Acre Fund really began with two very special farmers that I met while traveling in western Kenya between my two years of business school. One farmer's yield was two tons of food on one acre. Her family was thriving and her children were doing really well. Meanwhile, her neighbor was yielding four times less food. She was very, very badly off and she had lost a child.

I started asking questions. What makes this first farmer so successful? The first farmer was using just a little bit of seed and fertilizer. She was planting her seeds very carefully and using correct practice. That was it. I was shocked by that. Most of the world’s poor people are farmers, and this experience made me think, “Surely it can't be that difficult to make farming more productive?”

Soon after, I did some testing with a starting group 40 farmers, loaning them seed and fertilizer, providing some simple training. At the time I knew very little about agriculture, but those farmers all had the best harvest of their lives. It spoke to the power and simplicity of making these farmers more productive.

That was the beginning and from there it grew, but the model remains largely the same today; very little has changed. We provided environmentally-responsible seed and fertilizer delivery, finance so clients could afford it (on average about $80) and training. Our general philosophy is that farmers are already spending a lot of time farming and we don't want to radically change what they're doing. We just want to make some small tweaks that enable farmers to become a lot more productive.

Many farmers have never used agricultural inputs before and do not have the upfront capital to pay for it. In these cases, One Acre Fund shoulders the cost until the farmers have reaped the benefit of these inputs and can afford to pay for them later.

Is Africa in the midst of a Green Revolution? How does One Acre Fund fit into that?

I do believe Africa is in the midst of a Green Revolution. Hopefully also, a very healthy, sustainable Green Revolution. We are seeing a really rapid increase in adoption of very basic technologies. You see farmers using correct practices much more. There is an increase in realization that the long-term sustainability of the results are important. If we have a five-year boom of crop yields, that's insignificant in the long run. Everything has to be done in a way that is environmentally sustainable, what we call “long-term impact”.

Africa will one day feed itself. It's both a moral imperative and it's an economic reality. But there are only two ways to accomplish that. Either we can clear cut tons of forest and savannah and turn that over to farms, which would be an environmental disaster, or we can make our existing land more productive. The targeted and responsible use of seed and fertilizer is a way to make that land much more productive, and it is a much more environmentally sustainable way of producing all that food.

One Acre Fund hopes to play a very supportive role in that evolution. We have a strong presence in East Africa and we hope that our network of 380,000 farm families can help spearhead the adoption of some of these practices in their communities. As we continue to grow, we will deepen our relationships with many African governments, working together in the field on some of those programs.

One Acre Fund’s products reach some very remote parts of East Africa.

Can you describe a typical before and after scenario for one of your farmers?

Change doesn’t happen overnight. The people we serve are in very extreme poverty. On average, farmers in our program improve their income by about 50%. Given enough time, this can result in a significant reduction in hunger and increases in both food and productive assets, business investments, school attendance for farmers’ children, and education attainment for the farmers themselves. Basically, just better lives for families.

One of the most effective and easily implemented methods used by One Acre Fund is teaching farmers to use correct and consistent spacing, which can be as simple as using a stick to measure the distance between seeds.

Why is it particularly important to reduce risk for small farmers in East Africa? How do you help them do that?

Small farmers face many risks. In particular, they are the most vulnerable people on the planet when it comes to climate change because they depend on their environment for their livelihood. We do many things to protect farmers. We actually have what we call a multi-layer defensive shield. One of those things, for example, is crop insurance. We're the largest seller of crop insurance to small-holders in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Another is composting. It’s important to have a good ratio of organic matter to mineral content in your soil, so building your soil’s organic matter with compost generally makes you more resilient to either drought or too much rain. Another is correct seed choice. Picking the right seeds for your climate is actually a really important way of protecting them against changes to that climate.

Some more common risks would be crop diseases or pests. Another would be the farmer simply getting sick, which is one reason why we organize our farmers into groups of 10. We have quite a few cases where one farmer falls ill, but the group members come in and help that farmer out.

The farmer groups are excellent safety nets. Farmers from within a group have also been known to support one another financially during tough times. One of the things that I really admire about the communities that we serve is the way that people come together in times of need. It would almost be unthinkable for them to not support their neighbor if they were having a really, really difficult season.

The groups are also a very useful tool for training. It's one thing to learn a concept, but when you learn it together with ten other people and then you go and practice it together the next day in the field, that really reinforces the training.

Many farmers produce a significant surplus after using One Acre Fund, which they can sell and benefit from. On average, farmers increase their income by about 50%.

This year marks One Acre Fund’s tenth year. What are your hopes for the next 10 years?

We have very big ambitions. In the next five years, we hope to at least triple in size to reach at least 1.25 million farm families per year—so by 2020 we hope to reach an additional 3 million farm families. There are also 50 million households in Sub-Saharan Africa that we could help—50 million households that rely on agriculture as their main source of income and live in serviceable areas, and we know that our model could be immediately useful for them. So we're still falling pretty far short.

Looking forward 10 years from now, we need to continue to aggressively grow our core program. We need to also really deepen our work with African governments in order to have an effect on those 50 million households. What we really need to work on is whole-system shifts—if enough individual efforts add up across a country, we can really change the whole system. That is how we can improve the agriculture ecosystem for entire countries.

What's Next?