BLOG Category: operations
Louis Terren had been working for corporations for almost five years when he came across One Acre Fund in an article about non-profit careers. He immediately visited the website, and after reading about the organization’s impressive impact, decided to apply to the new country expansion team.
Here, Louis shares his experiences working on One Acre Fund’s first-ever pilot in East Asia, and offers some sound advice for would-be applicants interested in applying to work with One Acre Fund.
What does it mean to be a New Country Scout for One Acre Fund?
Being a new country scout means being professionally curious, driven and adaptable. My role is exciting and energizing, but also requires flexibility and a willingness to see an unconventional set up as an adventure rather than a barrier. Initially, during my first three weeks in-country, I worked out of a hotel room and traveled to the field everyday on a Honda scooter. These days, I still spend a lot of time in the field, studying the market and checking that our strategy makes sense. It can be tricky though, because now I also interview candidates to build our Myanmar team, and am responsible for office and administrative work, which must be done after I get back from the field. Pilot teams are small, so people often carry a wide range of responsibilities, but we also get to work on a lot of new and exciting projects at once…it’s a trade-off!
Can you tell us more about One Acre Fund’s early-stage work in Myanmar?
One Acre Fund is running a pilot program in Myanmar. We’re based in Pyay, a town in Bago province, along the Irrawaddy River. Here, farmers mostly grow rice during the monsoon season and beans and sesame in the dry season. I flew down here four months ago to launch the pilot.
Our goal for this pilot is to test whether One Acre Fund’s model could increase farmer incomes significantly in Myanmar. We’re specifically interested in trying to raise farm profitability for smallholder farmers through yield increase and credit cost reduction. Farmers in Myanmar cultivate many different crops, but the most common crop in the Bago region where we’re located is rice. Unfortunately, rice has not been a very profitable crop for farmers here due to low yields and high costs of labor. So we are piloting a fertilizer loan program at low interest rates to give farmers the opportunity to earn greater profits by increasing the productivity of their land.
What is team Myanmar working on at the moment?
This week, farmers are forming groups to enroll in our program, so I’m in the field everyday with our field director and field officers.
If you were to stop by our office in town, you’d meet Joseph, my agronomist colleague, who is preparing our cultivation training curriculum in Burmese, and Gloria, our accountant, who is closing the books for March and setting up our CRM system. Later this year, we’re planning to research and potentially launch other interventions, such as mechanization, access to markets, cash crops, and an open research station for seed selection and agronomy trials.
What are the priorities for the Myanmar pilot moving forward?
One Acre Fund has a decade of experience in field operations serving farm families; we hope to leverage our learnings and systems from East Africa to replicate our impactful programs in the Burmese context. The fundamentals are similar: 70 percent of the population are farmers with very low yields, and who pay very high interest rates to invest in inputs for their farms.
Interestingly, unlike many of our customers in East Africa, most Burmese farmers do not struggle to grow enough to feed their families year-round. However, farmers unfortunately aren’t generating enough profits from their activities to improve their quality of life and achieve financial security. Farmers rely heavily on very high interest rate credits to cover emergency and living expenses between harvests. Our priority is to create programs that can raise farmer annual revenues so that they can build a financial safety net and break free of this debt cycle.
What is your favorite thing about working for One Acre Fund?
I love our complete focus on impact. The organization is very effective at changing farmers’ lives in Africa, and it’s an extremely rewarding project to be part of. I hope we will achieve the same with Burmese farmers.
What has been the biggest lesson you've learned so far at One Acre Fund?
“Success is in the details” is my motto these days. In One Acre Fund jargon it’s called “zooming in”, meaning project managers need to go deep into the operational details to make sure their strategy is implementable. Often times, an idea makes sense on paper and looks promising, but it fails in the field because of simple logistical things like “farmers can’t read” or “you can’t carry 200 kilograms of fertilizer on one motorbike.” One Acre Fund has a culture of building the strategy from the field up, starting with farmer surveys and focus groups, then building up into excel models, and then back down into a field trial, and back up for analysis and strategic pivots. In my opinion, it’s this constant back-and-forth between the field and the drawing board that has made the organization excellent at execution.
Do you have any advice for candidates applying to one of our roles in Myanmar?
Pack your hobbies in your suitcase and start learning Burmese! But in all seriousness, if you’re interested in a career that combines professional rigor with a little bit of risk and a lot of impact potential, I highly recommend applying to a role on our new country scouting team.
On Monday, March 28, 2016, One Acre Fund hosted its first bi-annual open analyst call in 2016. During these calls, One Acre Fund founder Andrew Youn discusses the organization’s progress towards achieving key performance indicators, announces country-specific milestones, and shares plans for the future.
Youn began the call with a report on program scale. Thus far in 2016, One Acre Fund has already grown by more than 30 percent from 2015, and is currently serving over 400,000 farm families. Excitingly, we saw our largest ever enrollment in Kenya this year, crossing 200,000 farmer threshold! We expect to meet or surpass our 2016 target of 420,000 farmers with upcoming enrollment for the next season in Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania. We also anticipate reaching an additional 700,000 clients through systems change work.
In terms of program impact, we are aiming for $140 USD of impact per-farmer in 2016, up from $137 USD in 2015. The slight increase is likely to result from higher adoption of add-on products as well as improved maize seed.
While preliminary 2015 program sustainability is calculated to be 80 percent, we anticipate our sustainability number in 2016 to dip slightly. This is due to a methodology change and the inclusion of Malawi and Uganda country operations, which are much newer and therefore much less sustainable, as part of our sustainability calculations going forward.
The second half of the call was dedicated to a discussion of Social Return on Investment, or SROI. This investment framework allows us to unify two of our core metrics— impact and sustainability —and is something One Acre Fund has begun using internally to compare various programming options. SROI can be used to set a minimum hurdle rate to commence new work, and helps leadership make resource-allocation decisions for projects that are already in-process. One Acre Fund’s Kenya core program and Zambia pilot were given as two examples of where SROI has helped inform decision-making around resource allocation.
After calculating the SROI of our core model in 2015, Youn shared how One Acre Fund has increased its SROI over time, largely driven by improved net costs per farmer. While we are still honing the framework, One Acre Fund hopes to use SROI externally as well as internally, in discussions with results-oriented donors, investors, and other champions, as well as with peer organizations for benchmarking purposes and goal setting.
The call also featured an inspiring “mission moment,” in which participants heard the story of Ugandan smallholder Sofia Katende. A mother of four, Sofia Katende could never afford improved seed and fertilizer for her one-acre farm in Kasambira, Uganda. Her harvests were always poor, and each season she faced the same dilemma: store her maize after harvest to sell at a higher price, but risk major losses from pests and rodents, or sell her maize immediately after harvest at a throw-away price.
Sofia Katende of Kasambira, Uganda
Then, in 2014, she planted a small demonstration plot with One Acre Fund. Her yield, 350 kg of maize from 1 kg of seed, was three times her usual harvest from the same amount of seed. In 2015, she planted half of her one-acre plot with One Acre Fund. That half acre yielded 1600 kgs, twice her usual yield from planting a full acre.
Sofia had always hoped to protect her harvest from pests long enough to fetch a higher price at market. One Acre Fund’s program enabled her to do this for the first time.
After selling her surplus at a much higher price, Sofia used part of the proceeds to open a mobile money shop. Now, with her new sources of income, she hopes to send her eldest son, George, to university next year.
Keep an eye out for our next analyst call six months from now, when we will provide new program updates and scale projections.
One Acre Fund is hiring for over 60 new positions. Visit our jobs page and apply today to join our family of leaders!
Click here to learn more about the book Harnessing the Power of Collective Learning: Feedback, accountability and constituent voice in rural development.
One Acre Fund was recently asked to contribute to a book on constituent voice. The idea behind constituent voice is that people who are meant to benefit from socially-minded projects should play an active role in implementing and evaluating those projects. The new book presents eleven case studies of organizations trying to embed the perspectives and preferences of smallholder farmers into their work.
Participating in this effort got us thinking: what are the key mechanisms One Acre Fund has in place to ensure that we’re constantly learning from the farmers we serve?
Method 1: Farmers as staff
Famer perspectives are embedded into our program structure by virtue of the fact that farmers make up the majority of our staff. Farmers comprise roughly 90 percent of our 3,000 field operations staff. We also rely on a large volunteer network of 20,000+ farmer ‘group leaders’ to help arrange farmer meetings and lead groups in activities like planting and harvest. Field officers and group leaders spend their days in the fields of the farmers they serve gathering both formal and informal feedback. Input is then communicated upwards through weekly meetings with their managers. This staffing model forms a powerful feedback mechanism: farmers make up a majority of our staff, which boosts their influence on how One Acre Fund operates.
Field staff, many of whom are farmers themselves, offer instruction to One Acre Fund farmers about planting techniques.
Method 2: Farmers as paying clients
Finally, we believe that treating farmers as clients and asking them for partial payment for our services is a useful tool for strengthening their say in how we operate. If the quality of our service in a particular area drops, we immediately see a drop in repayment levels, which sends a clear signal to us that something needs to be fixed. And the next season, farmers can “vote with their feet” and choose not to enroll if they find that One Acre Fund’s offerings are not worth their cost.
Farmers purchase seed, fertilizer, and other add-on products on credit from One Acre Fund. Because farmers take out loans with us, we refer to them as clients.
Method 3: Farmers as co-innovators
We also try to ensure that farmers play an active role in our product R&D process. We experienced some early failures with products like passion fruit and mushrooms, which, although quite appealing on paper, were not actually attractive to our farmer network. This taught us a vital lesson: we needed to include farmers in every stage of our innovation process. Now, after some initial research, we quickly move to the field, where farmers test new products through hands-on trials. We ask farmers at each stage of the process for their feedback on what worked and what didn’t. Incorporating farmer opinions in our innovations process has led us to think about the adoptability and simplicity of products, rather than just their theoretical impact.
A great example of this process in action is our rollout of trees throughout the One Acre Fund program. We first learned that grevillea trees could be a great product addition because farmers told us so. And as we developed a tree product, participation by farmers ultimately pointed us to an affordable and simple method for planting trees on a large scale. Farmer feedback was critical in scaling our grevillea tree offering to where it is today.
Before new products ever make their way to farmers for purchase during enrollment, we ask farmers to test them and solicit farmer feedback.
One Acre Fund’s mission is to generate meaningful, long-term impact for the smallholder farmers we serve. Genuinely listening to and learning from farmers is a key ingredient in fulfilling that mission. We have found time and again that listening to farmers pays dividends in terms of driving overall impact.
At a more basic level, seeking farmer input is simply the right thing to do. Farmers have the right to weigh in on products and services targeted to them. The mechanisms One Acre Fund has established for seeking and incorporating farmer feedback into our program have transformed farmers from passive beneficiaries to engaged participants who are actively shaping solutions to end hunger and poverty in their homes and communities.
One Acre Fund is hiring for 50+ new positions. Apply today and help more smallholder farmers improve their productivity, increase their incomes, and grow their way out of hunger and poverty.
It’s December, and the end of the year is fast approaching. But for One Acre Fund, December 2015 marks the beginning of our tenth year of humble service to smallholder farmers. Watch this incredible video to hear the farmers we work with share their personal stories of hunger and food insecurity, and how One Acre Fund's program has forever changed their families and communities.
As 2015 draws to a close, we take a moment to reflect on some key milestones and accomplishments from this exciting year.
In February, operations in Kenya reached over 137,000 smallholder farmers, and 9,000 metric tons of life-changing products were delivered to our Kenyan clients.
This April, Skoll Innovations Investment Alliance provided us with a $2 million grant. With this generous contribution, One Acre Fund continued to pursue an extension partnership with the Rwandan government.
In June, Burundi field operations collected 100 percent repayment for the fourth season in a row. The New York Times also featured One Acre Fund’s operating model in an article by David Bornstein, sharing our mission of serving the poorest and most remote smallholder farmers.
July saw the doubling of operation enrollment in Tanzania, expanding its client base to serve 18,000 farmers.
October was a busy month in Rwanda with USAID matching Skoll Investment Alliance’s $2 million grant, further enabling extension partnership efforts with the Rwandan government. Additionally, Eric Pohlman, Rwanda Country Director, was awarded the Norman Borlaug Field Award.
By November, 152,000 farmers across East Africa had made long-term financial investments by planting tree seedlings.
As we embark on our tenth year, we are pushing ourselves to think long-term. We don’t want to generate impact for just one generation; our goal is to generate impact for farmers that will pay dividends for their children and their children’s children. We look forward to sharing our progress in many more blogs to come, so be sure to check back in 2016 to learn about the new ways we’re putting Farmers First.
Members of the customer engagement team field calls from clients.
One Acre Fund currently serves more than 130,000 farm families across rural Kenya. Because many of these farmers live in extremely remote areas that are difficult to reach, we need a quick and easy way to communicate, and make sure our clients remain satisfied. In 2012 we founded the customer engagement team to address this important need.
The team’s mission is to serve a bridge between farmers and One Acre Fund. The department has three hotline numbers, which farmers can call or send SMS messages to. The team receives an average of 100 calls per day from clients, with questions about everything from solar lights to funeral insurance. Sometimes, farmers call the hotline to talk about credit repayment, or to ask about crop-related issues. A lot of people call with positive feedback about the program!
This is how it works. When a farmer calls the hotline, the agents record the issue or complaint, and then arrange to follow up on the client’s concerns. Each case is followed up differently since the topics vary greatly. Each week, agents dedicate time to calling back farmers to update them on the progress made towards resolving their issue. The farmer is also contacted once the case is resolved to ensure they are satisfied with the outcome.
In 2012, the customer engagement team had only two agents handling all calls. Back then, the team would receive about 20 calls per day. Today, the customer engagement team has grown to eight staffers. The hotline has become more popular than ever, with agents receiving over 100 calls per day! Farmers have learned that they can call with any issue, however delicate it is, and that the team will work hard to solve any problems they have.
While the hotline is a way for One Acre Fund to troubleshoot customer service complaints, it also functions as a very useful feedback loop. For example, In 2013, the team reported that large numbers of clients from Nyanza province, Kenya were calling the hotline to report that weather patterns in the region had become more erratic. They suggested that One Acre Fund’s pre-established seed and fertilizer delivery dates were no longer ideal, as they were too close to the arrival of the rains (when farmers needed to be planting). Our agents were dispatched to confirm farmers’ concerns, which ultimately led to One Acre Fund moving the delivery of seed and fertilizer to Nyanza province up by one month.
The hotline also helps field staff— who are responsible for working with upwards of 100 farmers in person across large distances— keep tabs on what is happening in the areas they cover. When farmers call the hotline to report that they are experiencing problems, the customer engagement agents will contact the field officer who is in charge of that area, and recommend that she or he pay the farmers a visit. One time, a farmer called to report that his maize crops were not germinating well. The team immediately reached out to the field officer, who went to see the farmer. The field officer realized that the farmer’s field was waterlogged, and advised him to make terraces to drain the excess water. Later, the farmer called our hotline to thank us for sending the field officer who helped him get his maize crops into shape.
Besides identifying and resolving issues, the customer engagement hotline also serves as a repository for positive feedback. Every week, farmers from all over Kenya call and text to share their appreciation for One Acre Fund’s services. Farmers also share their satisfaction with the hotline itself—they like having a place to air their grievances and also share their success stories.
Receiving positive feedback from farmers is a huge morale boost, and provides the customer engagement team with personalized, anecdotal evidence of the program’s impact. For example, a farmer from a remote village in the western part of Kenya called simply to share his own success story. He explained how he had planted 2kg of bean seed, and harvested a whopping 62kg of beans. Thrilled with the biggest harvest of his life, he vowed never to leave One Acre Fund!
Individual success stories gleaned from our customer engagement line help add a personal touch to the impact statistics One Acre Fund monitors and reports on. The complaints and constructive feedback we receive from farmers are also integral to the organization’s decision-making process, helping us identify and troubleshoot issues as they arise.
The next big thing we’re working on to improve customer service? An interactive voice response system that will allow us to serve even more clients faster. As the organization continues to grow, we’ll keep striving to provide even better service to Kenya’s smallholder farmers.
The One Acre Fund team is growing rapidly. But we’re not just focused on increasing our numbers; we’re dedicated to finding the very best talent to join our team.
When it comes to offering high-quality and high-impact services to our clients—some of the most hardworking people on the planet— it’s extremely important that we recruit the best in the business. In return, we offer budding social entreprenuers the support and training they need to spread their wings and move into career-track roles.
Here, we share five new positions that will allow us to vastly improve our operations. If one of these roles appeals to you, we encourage you to apply!
Analytics Strategy Lead: Are you a highly analytical thinker with a passion for using quantitative analysis for social impact? The analytics strategy lead will help One Acre Fund continue its focus on data-driven solutions that address the strategic challenges facing our growing social enterprise. Projects will range widely, and you’ll work through teams, so if you like variety and work well with others, this may be the right role for you.
Tanzania Government Relations Analyst: We’re looking for someone to build our Government Relations team in Tanzania’s capital city, Dar es Salaam. This role involves creating and maintaining key relationships with government officials at a local and national level. Interest in government and policy work, good communication skills and management experience are helpful to have if you’re considering applying.
Fertilizer Supply Chain Associate/Manager: One Acre Fund currently purchases 18,500 metric tons of fertilizer to serve farmers across East Africa- that’s approximately equivalent to the weight of 2,700 African elephants! To accomplish this feat for years to come, we need organized, driven leaders to join our inputs team. We’re seeking a combination of strong communication skills, relationship-building skills, and experience in data analysis. If you’re a quantitative thinker who enjoys working with people, this position may be for you!
Development Associate (Grant Writing/Reporting): Grant writing and reporting is a vital part of our fundraising and business development strategies. But we’re looking for more than a good writer for this role; the ideal candidate will have strong business acumen, a passion for international development, and some prior field experience. One Acre Fund grant writers are experts in our core program and innovations work, and we’re looking for someone who can learn quickly and add capacity to a growing business development team.
Internal Audit Associate: This role will spearhead the design and implementation of our organization-wide internal audit plan, which is a brand new initiative. Public accounting experience is a plus for this position, but this is not a financial/accounting audit role. Rather, we're looking for someone who has operational audit experience, sound research skills, and strong management and leadership capabilities. The person filling this role will not only lead our internal audit plan, but they'll also develop a team of exceptional audit department staff members as well.
Applying to One Acre Fund means taking a step towards enabling millions of smallholder farmers to build themselves a path out of poverty. If this sounds inspiring to you, submit your application today!
As 2014 draws to a close, we at One Acre Fund have much to be thankful for.
2013 was a challenging year for us operationally. In Kenya we had to develop and distribute an entirely new crop package after a blight called Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease (MLND) devastated the maize harvest across the country. At the same time, we expanded our operations in other countries, and launched a brand new program in Tanzania.
We learned a lot from the challenges of 2013. Those experiences allowed us to make 2014 our best year to-date, with major successes serving farmers across all countries and programs:
In March we delivered 50,558 solar lamps to farmers across Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. This was our first year offering solar lamps at scale in all the countries where we operate!
A One Acre Fund farmer hangs his Sunking Pro 2 solar lamp on the roof to light his house.
By May, we calculated our grevillea tree program had helped farmers plant an average of 50 trees per client in Kenya. The sale of these trees will help farmers pay for large expenses like their children’s school fees or new livestock.
A One Acre Fund staffer looks at a young grevillea tree in Teso, Kenya.
June saw One Acre Fund farmers in Burundi repay 100 percent of their loans for both growing seasons. In the second season, we doubled the amount that our farmers earn in increased profit as the result of joining our program, to $67 per farmer per year.
A One Acre Fund field officer collects farmer payments at a meeting in Burundi.
In August, 4,300 One Acre Fund farmers harvested crops in Tanzania. This was a 300 percent increase from the year before, and only our second year of operation in Tanzania.
After more than three years of researching and trialing bananas, in September we successfully delivered 35,480 banana plantlets to 7,096 farmers at over 400 rural distribution points across Rwanda.
Smallholder farmer Agnes Mukakabano is happy about the five FHIA 17 bananas trees she received.
In Tanzania this October, we purchased over 100 tons of maize from clients in order to help them get the best possible prices for their crops. Since we were able to buy and sell in bulk, we could pay farmers nearly 25 percent more than they would have received from other buyers.
Smallholder farmer Angel Mbasi harvests maize in Negabihi area, Tanzania.
By October, enrollment figures for the 2015 season were in. Over 200,000 clients had signed on to work with us this coming year, making it our biggest year to date.
From our humble beginnings in 2006, to our efforts to help farmers thrive in spite of setbacks in 2013, to our highest enrollment numbers to-date in 2014, One Acre Fund has a strong history of growth and adaptation. This isn’t an accident. Our commitment to humble service and constant improvement means we will always test new crops, products, and operational innovations in order to ensure we’re offering the most impactful products and services to farmers.
2015 isn’t even here yet, but it’s already shaping up to be a milestone year for One Acre Fund: through our work with over 200,000 smallholder farm families, our services will reach one million men, women, and children. With the UN declaring 2015 the International Year of Soils, it is also shaping up to be a milestone year for our planet.
For One Acre Fund, working with over 200,000 clients could be our biggest challenge yet. But our rapid growth moves us ever closer to our goal of achieving transformative impact on a truly transformative scale. We’re excited to roll up our sleeves and serve more smallholder farmers than ever before.
Historically, the prevailing belief in the development community was that achieving financial sustainability meant sacrificing a high level of impact. While the debate still rages, more and more social sector leaders are agreeing that impact and sustainability aren’t mutually exclusive.
One Acre Fund, along with a growing number of nonprofit social enterprises, is coming to realize that pursuing financial sustainability, far from hurting social impact, is actually one of the best ways of achieving impact on a transformative scale.
One Acre Fund offers a market bundle of farm inputs, delivery, training, and market facilitation to 180,000 smallholder farmers in East Africa—and we ask those farmers to repay us in full. It may sound counterintuitive, but we think that insisting on repayment from farmers actually helps them dramatically. Here’s how:
Repayment makes us more responsive to our customers’ needs. If our service in a village declines, repayment there will suffer, and we can address the problem quickly. Similarly, if we offer a product that clients aren’t interested in, farmers won’t pay for it!
Seeking earned revenue increases One Acre Fund’s overall resource-base. This allows us to serve more farmers, expand more rapidly, and return to serve our customers year after year. Our overall social impact is a function of our impact per customer, multiplied by the number of customers we serve. Expanding impact requires large investments, which can only be made over the long-term with at least some earned revenue.
Achieving sustainability in our direct service operation frees up donor dollars to focus on potentially game-changing innovations. With donors no longer caught in the cycle of fully subsidizing service delivery, they can fund innovations and “public goods”— for example, agriculture microfinance innovations and agricultural R&D.
Many social entrepreneurs agree that earned revenue should be part of their program model, but are left with the question of how to actually go about incorporating it. This is a particularly pressing question for organizations serving the bottom of the pyramid, where it can be hard to envision even some earned revenue, let alone break-even.
One Acre Fund hasn’t reached full financial sustainability yet, but we think there are some common strategies organizations can employ which make this an achievable goal. These strategies boil down to economies of scale—as organizations grow bigger, not only do they serve more clients overall (which drives impact) but they are able to serve them more efficiently.
Social enterprises should think about sustainability in the way that best suits their model—we define financial sustainability as the portion of field costs (things like seed, fertilizer, and field staff salaries) covered by farmer loan repayment. Currently, One Acre Fund operates at 77 percent financial sustainability.
One way we improve our sustainability is by increasing the ratio of farmers to field officers who serve them. Each One Acre Fund field officer serves a group of farmers, training them, ensuring they receive their inputs, and troubleshooting issues in the field. Increasing the number of farmers that each field officer serves—without sacrificing service quality—allows us to serve more farmers with the same staffing and cost footprint.
Mobile repayment is another area we’re exploring as a means to improve operational efficiency in Kenya. Instead of field officers handling cash repayment, mobile repayment allows farmers to repay their loans directly to One Acre Fund’s accounts. This frees each field officer’s time to serve more clients and allow them to focus on high-impact activities like agricultural trainings—a win-win for sustainability and impact.
We’re also looking for ways to responsibly increase average transaction volume, which is the value of the goods each farmer purchases from us. We take a margin on the products we sell, in order to cover the cost of our services. Each of our product offerings is also proven to generate returns for farmers, so that if farmers take on larger transactions, we can deepen our impact on their livelihoods, while improving our own financial sustainability.
One way to increase transaction volume that minimizes risk for clients is assigning credit scores to our farmers. We think credit scoring will help set appropriate transaction volume limits for clients, allowing us to increase transaction sizes for farmers with a proven ability to handle more risk, while offering less experienced farmers loans they can manage.
One Acre Fund isn’t alone in coming to realize that high impact and financial sustainability go hand-in-hand. Bridge International Academies, Living Goods, and Sanergy are examples of nonprofit social enterprises that place a high premium on financial sustainability, and have some creative ideas for how to achieve it. While our strategies are always evolving, we’re increasingly convinced that the pursuit of financial sustainability actually helps drive social impact, rather than undermining it.
This piece was written by Jake Velker and Hilda Poulson, and was originally published by Devex Impact. To view the original post, click here.
At One Acre Fund, we offer smallholder farmers top-quality seeds and fertilizer as a part of a bundle of services that is provided on credit. The entire bundle costs about $80, and farmers are responsible for paying it back during the course of the agricultural season. Throughout the year, our field team works closely with farmers to educate them on agricultural techniques, and also to help them plan how to repay the loan.
One Acre Fund is very flexible about repayment, and most of our farmers repay their loan little by little at their own convenience. This flexibility is very helpful for farmers, many of whom experience uneven cash flows throughout the year. However, flexible repayment schedules can be logistically very challenging.
In Rwanda, this is what repayment looks like: 500 field staff visit 74,000 households twice a month, and collect small repayments on each visit. That’s a lot of transactions to keep track of. To help cope with this complexity, we’ve created a system where each field staff reports daily statistics back to headquarters using SMS (text message via mobile phone).
This information gets compiled into a live performance report that our most senior field staff uses to monitor progress on a daily basis. With this data, we’re able to categorize our clients according to their repayment progress, and tailor strategies to their specific needs.
Field officer Josephine Kamanyanna reviews repayment materials in preparation for meeting with farmers.
Despite the challenges, field teams in Rwanda were enormously successful in collecting farmer repayment. This past season, Rwanda’s field staff collected over $4 million, bringing the total repayment rate on loans to 98 percent. This achievement makes 2014 one of the best years for repayment in the history of the One Acre Fund program in Rwanda.
A key factor was having strong repayment and data collection systems in place, and using the data to improve operations. However, we’ve found that what actually motivates clients to repay their loans in full is the same thing that motivates farmers to re-enroll in our program year after year: excellent service.
Our field staff comes from the villages we serve. We only look for the most dynamic leaders – that is, respected members of the community who share One Acre Fund’s vision of a prosperous future for all farmers. Every month, field staff provide a series of on-site trainings to help clients achieve the biggest harvest possible. The topics range from proper planting distances and fertilizer application quantities to the benefits of composting and crop rotation. We provide farmers with easy, effective agricultural trainings they can’t get anywhere else. One Acre Fund field staff make sure farmers are able to capitalize on their investment in the One Acre Fund package, maximize their harvest yields, and ultimately repay their loans by the end of the season.
One Acre Fund staffers care deeply about the success of our farmers. This isn’t because of some internal repayment target, but because we live and work among the farmers we serve. Helping them maximize their yields means that farmers can feed their children, send them to school, and pursue dreams of purchasing more land, raising livestock, or building small businesses.
Humble service to smallholder farm families is what motivates our team. With such a high repayment rate in 2014, the Rwanda team is excited to set our sights even higher for the 2015 season.
At One Acre Fund, we don’t believe in resting on our laurels. We’re always pushing ourselves to deliver better service and generate greater impact for farmers and their families. We use the success of the previous season to help us meet new goals for serving even more farmers the next season.
This season in Kenya was incredibly successful for One Acre Fund. Staff across all field teams worked very hard, setting the stage for a great 2015 season. As we move forward with enrollment for the 2015 season, we take a moment to reflect on the high notes from 2014 in Kenya.
For the first time ever, we reached 100% repayment across Kenya. Even more excitingly, certain districts (such as Gucha) that faced serious crop challenges from Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease (MLND) completed repayment early.
On the staff side, our teams accomplished herculean feats of efficiency. In a single day, the revenue finance team entered the data for over 20,000 clients. To date, the customer engagement team has sent out an incredible 4 million SMS messages this year, including receipt messages for every payment, and reminders around planting compliance, deadlines, incentives, funeral insurance, and 2015 enrollment.
Our grevillea tree program showed significant growth. This year our average farmer successfully germinated over 70 trees, a big increase from the 33 trees last year. This year, some farmers took part in our “tree kit” trial, which included a package with tree seeds, sockets to plant them in and a small amount of fertilizer. The farmers that received tree kits had higher training attendance and higher planting rates. This coming year, nearly 40,000 farmers will receive tree kits.
We introduced several exciting innovations that will help improve operations. We expanded a program that allows farmers to make payments through M-Pesa (a way to transfer money using mobile phones). We launched a small trial in which our field staff used tablet computers instead of paper to complete enrollment contracts with farmers, boosting the accuracy of our record keeping. Our monitoring and evaluation team also adopted tablets. The team’s electronic surveying will provide important data on the farmers we serve. In the coming year, they’ll expand to collect information on farmers’ quality of life and income/expenditures.
We’re now in the midst enrolling farmers for the 2015 season, meaning we have 20,000 group leaders and replication agents in the field recruiting for us. In the first week alone, we had 100,000 farmers sign contracts for next season, which is our best first enrollment week ever!
While the 2015 season is still in its early stages, the success we’re seeing is largely due to the strong foundation laid in 2014. We’re proud of the work we accomplished in 2014— it has allowed us to set our sights even higher so we can serve even more farm families. We very much look forward to reporting on our 2015 season highlights.
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