Dial Fellowship

Africa's frontline farmers could be the planet's climate lifeline

At myAgro, a nonprofit operating in Mali and Senegal, Anushka Ratnayake invests in farmers to help them improve their livelihoods – and help us all respond to climate change.

6 min read

When Anushka Ratnayake first moved to Africa from San Francisco 14 years ago, she noticed it was difficult to find an official weather report. It’s why she will never forget a local farmer predicting the weather with stunning accuracy. “He said, ‘Don't worry. On Wednesday morning, it will rain,’” Ratnayake recalls. “And I kid you not, it rained on Wednesday.”

But in 2023, predictions like this have become nearly impossible. The growing season has traditionally lasted 16 weeks, with farmers planting crops directly after the first big rain — but  increasingly this season is shrinking to 12 weeks, with that first big rain followed by weeks of dry conditions. While low rainfall and drought are not new in the Sahel region in West Africa, climate change is quickly making it harder to grow: Temperatures in the region are rising 1.5% faster than the global average. Unprepared, smallholder farmers are losing their entire crops.

For most of the time she’s lived in Africa, Ratnayake’s focus has been helping farmers increase their yields. She is the founder of myAgro, a mobile app that offers educational tools and allows farmers to save money, little by little, for seeds and fertilizer. Since launching in 2011, it’s helped more than 115,000 farmers, who get a 3x return on their investment and double their harvests. 

But as the risk of total loss mounts because of climate change, myAgro’s mission has had to evolve to also provide farmers with resources to succeed under quickly changing conditions. And that’s prompted a realization: robust crops and healthy farmland store carbon. If the first evolution of myAgro was to help farmers and their crops survive climate change, the next could be to help us survive climate change with the help of farmers and their crops.

“Historically, the narrative with farmers has been that they're the victim, that climate change is happening to them. And that is very true — they didn't create this problem,” says Ratnayake. “But I think what gets overlooked is that they can also be a major part of the solution.”


Anushka Ratnayake explains how myAgro is helping farmers in Africa adapt to the changing climate.

Ratnayake started thinking about the ideas that would inform myAgro back in 2006. After graduating from college, she was working at a nonprofit crowdfunding loans for marginalized groups, and watched with great interest as Grameen Bank’s Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work empowering the poor with access to microcredit. Ratnayake was intrigued by the ways the right financial tools could boost social and economic development for those traditionally excluded from markets. That interest led her to One Acre Fund — which works specifically with smallholder farmers — where she helped develop several core components of the model.

But even as her work advanced solutions like grants, subsidies, and credit, she wondered whether there was an approach that could scale more quickly. “Credit was only meeting 25% of demand,” she remembers. “And despite grants and subsidies, yields per hectare haven’t increased in four decades.”

She founded myAgro in 2011 to approach the problem from another angle. Smallholder farmers struggle to afford the $50 to $100 needed every planting season to buy seeds, fertilizer, and insurance, but they do have this money at other times of the year after selling their harvest. MyAgro designed a digital tool to help them save little by little throughout the year to prepare for planting season. “We unlock millions of dollars in farmers’ own money and drive it toward investment in their farms,” Ratnayake explains.

But by year two, myAgro realized that the changing weather was impacting farmers. They started thinking about how, with their model, they could help farmers prepare for the realities of climate change, too. Could they offer better seeds? New crops to withstand drought? What were the best fertilizers to use to revive the soil? In what amounts? These questions kicked off a process of experimentation alongside farmers that continues to this day. 

One early solution was to find the best drought-tolerant variety of sorghum, a cereal grain. “The first varieties we had weren't that interesting to farmers, because the yield just wasn't significant,” says Ratnayake. Today, myAgro’s sorghum seeds are photosensitive. “So if there's rain at one period and not at another, the plants will still adapt and grow,” she says.

The goal with these solutions is to make climatic swings—in heat, in precipitation—more intuitive to work through. “We hear so often from farmers, ‘My family used to be able to plant a small piece of land to meet our needs, but I have to plant larger and larger plots, and I’m tired,” Ratnayake says. “Going from, ‘My family has planted this same way for 50 years,’ to, ‘every season is different’ — that is a whiplash level of change.”

Now, myAgro offers an assortment of packages to help farmers diversify their crops. They also help them plant those drought-resistant seeds; use precision planters to maximize their land; and even microdose fertilizer just where it’s needed rather than spreading the expensive resource everywhere. It offers trainings on topics including crop rotation and produce storage. 

Female farmers are especially benefitting from myAgro’s offerings. They tend to have smaller tracts of land and less money to spend, as cultural dictates have most of a family’s resources going toward a male head of household. Fanta Kane, a farmer in Kolibantang Village, Senegal, says that myAgro has transformed her ability to provide for her family too. "My husband adds compost to his field, but I never knew why. Now I understand the impact,” she says. “I added organic compost to my farm this year — I planted a 1/4 hectare of peanuts and followed myAgro’s recommendations. I harvested nearly three times as much as I have in the past, despite the challenging rainy season."

And climate change has brought myAgro full circle, drawing on its financial expertise to provide insurance that pays farmers a portion of the cost if an area is less productive than it has been historically — a growing problem given the increasing frequency of severe weather.

Last year, myAgro created a new team to better understand farmers’ changing needs and pilot new solutions with them. They are creating packages that give farmers marketable products year-round, like vegetables that can grow in the dry season, and chickens and other small livestock that can diversify farmers’ output and increase financial security.

And agroforestry — incorporating trees into cropland — has become a major area of focus. MyAgro recently ran a moringa tree pilot with 1,000 farmers. “Moringa is considered a tree of life. It's a superfood that’s highly nutritious,” Ratnayake says. “Each farmer got 15 seedlings, and after a few months, they were able to harvest the leaves.” 

But adding trees has also been powerful because they have the potential for sweeping climate impact, Ratnayake says. Trees remove carbon from the air and keep it in the soil. They reduce erosion and improve water retention. And given fast-increasing temperatures, they make farming both safer and more productive, with shade for farmers to work in and plant more delicate seeds under.

"The narrative with farmers has been that they're the victim, that climate change is happening to them.  I think what gets overlooked is that they can also be a major part of the solution.”

Anushka Ratnayake

As they pursue innovations like these, Ratnayake and myAgro are reaching more people than ever. Achieving scale is only getting easier, since it’s increasingly possible to reach farmers in remote areas over 3G and 4G networks. MyAgro is on track to reach one million farmers in West Africa by 2026, Ratnayake says. “What I imagine in the future is that farmers can call us or even get information through WhatsApp,” she notes. 

And the way to think about the impact isn’t simply the number of farmers reached. MyAgro hopes to prove the potential of what these farmers, with adequate support, can do for all of us. In Africa, 70 percent of the population works in agriculture, but smallholder farmers receive only 1.7 percent of global climate finance, Ratnayake points out. What might it mean for climate change if that number were 3 percent? 10 percent? 

“If we think of farmers as people who can contribute to capturing carbon,” she says, “there’s just so much potential impact.”