BLOG Category: research
By David Guerena, One Acre Fund agriculture innovations manager
Before the advent of synthetic fertilizers in the early 20th century, pulses were the principal source of agricultural nitrogen for farmers. Today, pulses are still one of the main dietary staples for approximately two billion of the world’s poor, yet they receive a fraction of the investment that maize and other cereals receive.
As a soil scientist, I have spent the last 10 years working at the intersection between agriculture and poverty in the developing world. It has never been clearer to me that beans and other pulses are some of the most important— and underappreciated— tools in the fight against global poverty.
With the United Nations declaring 2016 the International Year of Pulses, our perception of pulses may be changing. I recently sat down with one of the leading global voices in the use of pulses to fight poverty, Dr. Jeff Ehlers of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to discuss why these plants are a potential game-changer, and what actions the development community can take to harness the power of pulses.
DG: You currently work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, leading their work on legumes. What drove your decision to pursue a career working with pulses?
JE: Surprisingly, growing up as a suburban kid in California, my first passion was actually farming. This developed from summer visits to my uncle’s farm in southeast Minnesota. I went on to do my undergraduate work at the nearby University of California, Riverside, where I was exposed to breeding and genetics and worked with sorghum and potato breeding programs. I became hooked, and soon found myself in a PhD program at the University of California, Davis working on cowpea (a pulse crop) as part of a project with partners in Senegal. I basically fell in love with the cowpea and all its morphological diversity. As a breeder-agronomist in training, I was especially drawn to the challenge of how to harness the diversity of this unique crop and put it to good use, in the service of mankind.
DG: Many people may not know what a pulse or legume is. Can you provide a definition?
JE: Legumes are a major family of plants that includes trees (such as Acacia and Jacaranda) forages (such as alfalfa and clovers), but also peas and beans. All of these plants have the rare ability of forming a beneficial association with soil bacteria (rhizobium) on their roots. These bacteria form nodules on the roots that are able to take inert nitrogen from the air (our air is 80% nitrogen) and convert it into a form plants can use for their growth. Hence we say legumes are ‘N-fixers’ that contribute to the fertility of the soil to the benefit of crops grown in rotation with them.
Pulses are a type of legume where the seeds are used as human food, such as peas, lentils and beans. The seeds or grains are typically 2 to 3 times higher in protein (23-27%) than cereals such as maize and rice and have good levels of vitamins and minerals.
DG: The United Nations declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, to highlight the importance of pulses and legumes to achieving our Sustainable Development Goals. For the agriculture novices out there, what about legumes make them such an important tool in the fight to end global poverty?
JE: Legumes, and particularly the pulse subgroup, provide multiple benefits: they improve soil fertility, boost health and nutrition, and can provide stable income for smallholder farmers.
Possibly the most unique thing about the pulse crops is that they require little if any input of nitrogen fertilizers, due to their ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. All legumes have the rare ability to form a beneficial association with soil bacteria on their roots, which boosts soil fertility. Additionally, the plants provide nitrogen to the next crop when they decompose in the soil. When grown in rotation with other crops, pulses help improve staple crop (e.g. rice/wheat/maize) yields by breaking soil-borne pest and disease cycles that afflict these crops.
From an economic perspective, pulses diversify smallholder income streams and mitigate risks associated with staple crop price fluctuations. Over time, staple crop prices can be volatile, having multiple crops to sell helps bring income stability. When farmers grow pulses in addition to crops like maize, it helps buffer the farm from catastrophic disease and pest infestations and climate-related production disruptions.
From a nutritional and dietary diversity perspective, the leaves and immature pods of these crops can be consumed as high-value nutritious vegetables, and the grain is an important source of vitamins, minerals and protein for rural smallholder families. Additionally, the non-grain portion of the plant provides an important component of livestock food that can dramatically boost livestock yields and health.
DG: The Gates Foundation’s global development objective is to “help the world’s poorest people lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.” How do the foundation’s investments in pulses help to achieve this objective?
JE: I believe we as a society have a moral imperative to reduce the unacceptably high levels of childhood stunting that exist in Sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, which hover at about 40 percent in both regions. Income growth and increased dietary diversity have been cited as the two most powerful levers to impact childhood stunting, and legumes can play a powerful role contributing to both. Women smallholders in particular stand to gain substantially from investments into legume productivity, production and profitability because in many farming communities in developing countries, women are often in charge of pulse growing.
Examples of the pulses the foundation invests in include cowpea, common bean and chickpea. Because pulses contain protein levels that are two to four times greater than cereal crops such as rice, maize and wheat, and much higher than low-protein roots and tuber crops (cassava, sweet potato, yam, bananas, etc.) they provide a nutritional punch not available in other staples.
DG: Can you highlight some of the foundation’s specific strategic investments in legumes and highlight the important outputs and positive social outcomes from these projects?
JE: We are investing primarily in three areas that help smallholders grow and store pulses more productively and profitably. The first area is our Tropical Legumes III project, where we are investing in breeding and genetic improvement to provide smallholders with varieties of cowpea, common bean, chickpea and groundnut that resist key diseases and pests. We are working with international agriculture research centers, the national agricultural research institutions of seven African countries, and the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh. Our role at the foundation is really focused on enabling the adoption of modern genomic and digital tools, combined with operational and management ‘best practices’ that speed the delivery of these varieties.
Through our N2Africa investment, we’re helping develop inoculants with strains of bacteria that fix more nitrogen than ones present naturally in the soil. Led by Wageningen University in the Netherlands, this work brings together researchers from nine African countries, all of which are focused on developing improved agronomic recommendations to help smallholders achieve higher pulse and legume yields. Part of this project also involves incubating the private sector delivery of these improved inoculants, so the research actually makes its way to farmers in their fields.
Our Purdue Improved Crops Storage (PICS) project is helping to get hermetic storage bags into the hands of hundreds of thousands of farmers using a sustainable public-private delivery model. PICS bags were developed by Purdue University professor Larry Murdock, as a way to reduce post-harvest losses of cowpea grain resulting from insect infestation. The numbers indicate that if 50 percent of cowpea grain at the farm level were put into airtight storage, overall annual income in the region would increase by $255 million USD. PICS technology also opens another economic opportunity — PICS bag production and distribution. PICS project staff are working with local manufacturers to produce PICS bags and with entrepreneurs to distribute them throughout West and Central Africa.
DG: One thing I find interesting is that hundreds of millions of US dollars are invested globally in agronomy and genetic improvement of maize, wheat, and rice, yet only a small fraction of this amount is allocated to legumes. Besides the International Year of Pulses, what do you think has to happen for more investment to flow towards legumes research?
JE: I think we have to advocate for more pulse research and policies that favor (or at least don’t discriminate against) increased pulse production. Historically, governments pretty much everywhere have favored staples by implementing policies and programs (such as subsidized crop insurance, market price supports, and fertilizer subsidies) that have not been offered to pulse producers. These types of policies have often caused pulses to be less profitable and relegated to more marginal lands. The low yields obtained in these circumstances only fuel the mistaken notion that pulse crops are inherently low- yielding. In addition, because staple cereals have been receiving greater investments over the last several decades, we’ve seen small annual productivity gains from breeding in these crops that we have not seen in legumes, so now these cereals do in fact have higher levels of yield potential and pest and disease resistance. You can see how this puts pulses at a further disadvantage. More research dollars are needed to improve the productivity of these environmentally friendly nutritious crops to help them catch up.
DG: That’s a really good point, and it reminds me of something else I’ve been thinking about. Right now, most of the global research for legumes is dedicated to commercial soybean production, with less focus on cowpeas, pigeon peas, and other indigenous legumes species and traditional cropping systems. What steps can the global development community take to prioritize investments in these “alternative” legume species and cropping systems, which are more commonly grown in impoverished rural communities.
JE: The grain legume and pulse community is small and fragmented across a number of warm and cool season crops, and across the developed and developing world, each with different perspectives and aims. The Year of Pulses presents an opportunity to bring this community together, so we can make a united case for more favorable treatment of pulses as a global nutrition and environmental opportunity.
There are also opportunities for organizations to coalesce around certain technical areas— solutions to disease threats are relevant to all of us. And in in some cases, it might be worthwhile to encourage food companies to develop products from some of these less common crops, in order to create space for initial production and aggregation at sufficient scale.
DG: What are the geographic, agronomic, or economic areas you believe the international development community should be focusing on to improve pulse and legume productivity?
JE: These crops are grown in a multitude of agro-ecologies and cropping systems, so more breeding and seed delivery is definitely needed to bring more productive varieties to more farmers. Also, in some areas with poor soil fertility, research is needed to overcome soil constraints, either through specialized fertilizers or genetics. At the same time, improved national commitment to multiplying and disseminating seed of the improved varieties is needed, and this will likely require a mix of both public and private investments. Because these legumes are self-replicating, farmers can save money in the short-term by saving their own seed. This is an advantage for farmers on the one hand, but also means the legume seed market size is several fold smaller than it would otherwise be and it is difficult for private seed producers to operate at cost-effective scales.
DG: You’ve now spent a career devoting yourself to promoting legumes. After all these years, what is one thing that still surprises or delights you about legumes?
JE: I do remain delighted by the possibility of helping pulse farmers grow more pulses with less cost and effort, especially by creating a more perfect pulse variety that resists drought, is nutritious and tastes great and resists all the pests and diseases that attack it. Another thing that still delights me is the beautiful array of seed colors, patterns, shapes and sizes that give us a clue to the diversity we can harness and share with the farmers who produce and consume these marvelous crops in multiple forms.
I’ve been more of a researcher seeking solutions, but now I hope I am someone who can help bring the social, agro-ecological, and health benefits that come with increased legume availably in the developing world.
DG: 2016 is the International Year of Pulses. If it were up to you, what would you ask the UN to declare 2017 to be the year of?
JE: I think 2017 should be the International Year of Underexploited or Future Big Crops. I’m thinking of perennial grains, such as quinoa, hemp seed, bambarra groundnut, or fonio, to name just a few. Our food system is overly reliant on a few major food grains, and we are headed towards less diversity globally. At the same time, dietary and cropping system diversity are key elements of healthy diets and sustainable systems. Maybe it doesn’t have the same ring to it as Year of Pulses, but I think highlighting underexploited crops would be huge.
Dr. Jeffrey Ehlers is a plant breeder and geneticist, with a research focus on the genetic improvement of cowpea. He currently serves as a program officer with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
David Guerena is a soil scientist and agriculture innovations manager at One Acre Fund. He is based in Kisumu.
There are a number of reasons why pulses have the potential to generate significant impact for smallholder farmers. First, they have a high concentration of protein and essential nutrients such as iron, folate, and calcium, making them a nutritious dietary choice for farmers and their families. Additionally, their nitrogen-fixing capabilities mean pulses deliver essential nutrients to farmers’ soil, keeping it healthy and making it more productive long-term. Finally, the long-term storage potential of certain pulse crops makes them ideal for farmers to store and sell when market prices are high, netting them a greater profit that they can then invest in things like schooling for their children, livestock, or small businesses.
Each season, One Acre Fund’s agriculture innovations team conducts a wide range of trials to test new crops that could potentially generate big impact for farmers. Low impact potential, low adoptability, or high operational complexity are just a few of the reasons why some of the crops we test may not be rolled out to our clients at full scale. However, in the case of very significant impact potential, our team will often test different configurations in subsequent seasons to see if certain adoption or operations barriers can be overcome.
Here, we summarize two pulse-related trials our team ran in the past season. While certain adoption and operations barriers were identified, these trial results and next steps highlight the power of pulses to positively impact smallholder farming communities.
1. Common beans (phaseolus vulgaris) are the second most important crop in eastern, central, and southern Africa. In rural smallholder communities in these parts of Africa, common beans are the most important source of dietary protein and an important source of vitamins and essential minerals.
Despite the enormous importance of beans for African farming communities, bean production receives only a fraction of the formal investments in genetic improvement compared with investments in maize. Over the past few years, One Acre Fund has been making major investments to bring the best bean varieties and agronomy to hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers across Eastern and Central Africa.
In our newly published trial report on Improved Bean Seed, One Acre Fund’s agriculture innovations team shares details on our research approach, key findings, and next steps to scale impactful bean varieties.
2. Soybean was grown by 13 percent of One Acre Fund farmers in Rwanda during the 2015A season. In 2015B, adoption was even higher, with 29 percent of farmers growing soybeans. However, adoption is as high as 40-50 percent in some areas, including all districts in the East, Mugonero district in the west and Huye and Gisagara districts in the South. Furthermore, soybean demand is rising due to the recent construction of the SoyCo factory in Kayonza, which produces oil and animal feed.
Research shows that with proper agronomy and soil fertility management, soybean is highly productive and has a greater nitrogen-fixation potential than common beans. Unfortunately, with current seed varieties, agronomic practices, and fertilizer application rates, yields are below potential and the crop is not competitive with common bean.
In our recently published report on our Soybean and Rhizobium trial, One Acre Fund’s agriculture innovations team analyzes the impact of growing soybean with bradyrhizobium, nitrogen-fixing symbiotic bacteria.
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What’s brown and orange and black and spotted and green all over? If you’re having trouble guessing the answer, think about a common alternative to animal protein. Still stumped? Then check out the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s chosen theme for 2016 (it’s the International Year of Pulses!)
Pulses are a subgroup of the legume family, but the term “pulse” refers only to the dried seed. Dried beans, lentils and peas are the most commonly known and consumed types of pulses. The United Nations designated 2016 the International Year of Pulses in recognition of this critical, yet often overlooked crop. Pulses come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and there are hundreds of varieties grown throughout the world. This diversity and adaptability makes pulses a critical tool in efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change and bolster the resilience of food systems worldwide.
Pulses contain high levels of protein and essential nutrients such as fiber, folate, calcium, iron, and vitamin C. This means they’re excellent for human health (particularly pregnant mothers), but pulses are also good for soil health. The ability of pulses to fix nitrogen boosts the productivity of farmland long term. Many pulses promote higher rates of accumulation of soil carbon than cereals or grasses, and have been used by farmers in intercropping for centuries.
Smallholder farmers in particular stand to gain from the nutritional and environmental benefits of pulses. In developing countries, pulses make up 75 percent of the average diet, compared to 25 percent in industrialized countries. They are an affordable alternative to animal protein, and can be found in dishes like falafel, daal, chili, and even baked beans. Pulses can be stored for months on end without losing their high nutritional value. This trait is particularly valuable for smallholder farmers who depend on the food they store between harvests
More fun facts about this resilient super food:
1. The word pulse originates directly from the Latin puls meaning "thick gruel, porridge, mush.”
2. Humans have relied on pulses for centuries. Archaeological remains found in modern day Turkey indicate that farmers grew chickpeas and lentils as far back as 7000 - 8000 B.C.
3. The most widely cultivated pulses in Africa include common beans, pigeon pea, cowpea, groundnuts, chickpea and soybean.
4. It takes just 43 gallons of water to produce one pound of pulses, compared with 216 for soybeans and 368 for peanuts.
5. As nitrogen-fixing crops, pulses actually enrich soils rather than deplete them of nutrients during the growing process.
6. Pulses help to improve food security because as dried seeds, they can be stored for a long period of time without a decrease in nutrition.
7. Pulses are drought-tolerant and hardy under frost conditions, making them suitable to a wide range of environments.
8. Pulses are good sources of protein, fiber, and folate as well as calcium, iron, lysine, and vitamin C.
9. Pulses contribute about 10 percent of protein intake and 5 percent of energy intake in low-income countries.
10. Pulses are extremely beneficial for women and children because folate is a key nutrient during periods of rapid growth, such as pregnancy and infancy.
Want to learn more about pulses? Explore #IYP2016 on Twitter, or visit the Food and Agricultural Organization’s pulse webpage.
This blog was written by David Guerena, One Acre Fund agriculture innovations manager, and originally published on Agrilinks.
Pulse crops are critically important to human nutrition, soil health, and agricultural productivity. These edible seeds of the legume family of plants are one of the main dietary staples for approximately two billion of the world’s poor, many of whom live in remote areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. The symbiotic partnership between legumes and soil bacteria, which imparts the ability of legumes to biologically fix nitrogen from nitrogen gas in the air, is critical to combating poverty, environmental degradation, and improving soil health.
Pulse crops are hugely beneficial to human and soil health.
The first great civilizations all knew about the importance of legumes. In the millions of years before the invention of the Haber-Bosch process in the early 20th century, most of the earth’s biologically available nitrogen came from legumes. The inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent (modern day Israel, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq) cultivated peas, lentils, and chickpeas along with wheat. Inhabitants of the ancient Americas (modern day Mexico and the United States) cultivated beans with maize, while the ancient Chinese cultivated soybean and rice. Today, we know that soybeans contain almost twice the amount of protein and seven times more calcium than rice. Similar differences are apparent between most legumes and other staple grains. Legumes are also a critical source of folic acid, a necessary nutrient for prenatal and early childhood health. Several studies estimate that grain legumes may be a potent tool to fight childhood stunting (Tharanathan and Mahadevamma, 2003; Bevis, 2015; Smith and Hadad, 2014).
Despite their proven importance, aggregate investment in legume breeding and cropping systems research is estimated to be only one quarter of the investment in maize. Additionally, within aggregate legume investment, the majority (60 percent) is dedicated to soybean, while the multitude of other legume species (e.g. common beans, pigeon peas, fava beans, cowpeas) get the remaining 40 percent. Over the years, systematically low investment has resulted in yields that fall far short of the yield potential for these alternative legume species, despite their low requirement for fertilizer.
Comparatively low investment in alternative legume species such as common bean (above) has resulted in low yields.
The phenomenon of low yields has dire consequences for smallholder farming communities where many alternative legume species are commonly grown. For example, common beans, grown in the humid highland systems of eastern and central Africa, routinely yield below one metric tonne per hectare (t/ha), yet the yield potential is above two t/ha for bush cultivars and above four t/ha for climbing cultivars. Pigeon peas, common to the dry lowlands of eastern and southern Africa, often yield below 500 kg/ha, despite yield potentials well above one t/ha. In many cases, pests, disease, and incorrect planting, spacing, and weeding techniques are some of the main yield limitations.
While aggregate farmer legume yields are low, the methods for achieving high yields are known: utilization of improved genetic resources (better varieties) and good agronomic practices (fertilizers, spacing, weeding, etc.). Improved varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases can also be a first line to close the yield gap.
In many cases, where improved varieties exist they often have other characteristics (e.g. seed color, cooking time) that are not in sync with local preferences. Introducing black-seeded beans in an area with strong preferences for green or a pigeon pea variety that requires six hours of cooking in areas with only four hours of available cooking fuel will limit adoption. In addition, most legumes are grown in intricate intercropping systems. There is often contradictory information on the most efficient recommended intercropping agronomic practices.
Many smallholder farmers rely on alternative legume varieties to feed and nourish their families.
While additional research is needed to harness the power of legumes to serve the needs of the world’s poor, there are several research programs doing excellent work on legume breeding and agronomy. These include the Tropical Legume III program led by the CGIAR (TL-III), which focuses on breeding and seed delivery mechanisms; N2Africa led by Wageningen University focuses on mechanisms to increase nitrogen fixation; and the Legume Innovation Lab housed at Michigan State University focuses on breeding, agronomy, and value chains.
While part of the challenge lays in re-focusing research efforts, getting that research into the hands of farmers is another part of the challenge. One Acre Fund, a direct-service agricultural nonprofit I work with, has partnered with several of these organizations to deliver valuable research findings to hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers in eastern and southern Africa. These interventions are still being evaluated and contextualized to local demands and preferences, but initial results are promising. In Rwanda, we have used the microbial soil inoculants developed by N2Africa to maintain high soybean yields, while reducing the fertilizer input by 50 percent. In both Rwanda and Kenya, we have worked with the TL-III program and plant breeders from the national agricultural research system to bring improved bean seeds to tens of thousands of farmers. The Rwandan bean seeds are naturally fortified with high levels of iron, a critical nutrient for human nutrition. In Kenya, the bean variety was developed locally to be highly resistant to root diseases.
These innovations are examples of the existing potential to bring legumes out of obscurity and to the forefront of the fight against poverty and malnutrition. The world’s population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, with more than half the growth in Africa. To meet increased food demands, it is essential that we bolster the productivity, resilience, and nutrition of smallholder farming communities. As the United Nations celebrates the International Year of Pulses in 2016, the timing has never been better for the development community to invest in legumes. Our collective global future depends on it.
One Acre Fund staff live and work alongside the farmers we serve, helping them improve their harvests and grow their way out of hunger and poverty. Apply to join our family of leaders.
Ever since the UN declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, a number of interesting facts and figures have surfaced about how pulses and legumes are excellent for human and soil health. However, less is known about the critical role of one pulse in combatting a parasitic weed threatening farmers’ harvests in Kenya and Uganda.
Striga is a parasitic weed native to Africa that attacks the root systems of maize, sorghum, rice, and other staple grains, often resulting in total crop failure. Striga seeds exploit an ancient biochemical root communication system, which means they germinate in the presence of roots they can parasitize and use as a host.
Striga is very difficult to control. One plant can produce over 50,000 seeds that can be viable in the ground for decades. The crop disease is estimated to affect over 350 million smallholder farmers across Africa and contribute to $14 billion in lost productivity every year.
Scientists from ICIPE, led by entomologist Professor Zeyaur Khan, have discovered and pioneered a unique and innovative Striga control system called “Push-Pull.” In the Push-Pull system, species of perennial legumes from the genus Desmodium are intercropped with maize and other crops affected by striga. Desmodium roots produce the same biochemical signal required to germinate Striga seeds, but since Desmodium is not a host of Striga, the seedlings die before they can attack the vulnerable crops. Within the first season, Striga can be reduced by 50 percent, and after several seasons it can be totally eliminated from farmers’ fields.
A long-term research project has been conducted for thirteen years in Kenya to determine the impact of desmodium.
Besides its ability to combat striga, Desmodium is also extremely beneficial for farmers’ soils. As a perennial legume, Desmodium improves soil fertility by adding nitrogen and organic matter. It serves as living mulch that forms a protective cover over the soil, preventing erosion and conserving water. Desmodium also produces a natural chemical that repels insect pests.
Professor Khan discusses the effect of desmodium on striga.
The exciting discovery of Push-Pull is transforming the farms and lives of many smallholder farmers. One of these farmers is Mama Sarah Obama, the grandmother to US President Barak Obama. One Acre Fund staff from Kenya and Uganda recently visited the ICIPE’s research stations to learn more about the Push-Pull system, and had the opportunity to sit down with Mama Sarah and hear about her experiences combatting striga on her own farm.
Mama Sarah sits in the reception center at Kogelo, her home village.
A scientific discovery like the Push Pull system is only impactful if it makes its way from the lab to the field, and into the hands of smallholder farmers. One Acre Fund and ICIPE researchers have committed a joint collaborative effort to investigate methods for scaling the Push-Pull system to smallholder farmers throughout Uganda and Kenya. We are optimistic about opportunities to adapt and disseminate this exciting discovery to local contexts and help farmers protect their harvests and livelihoods.
Apply to become a One Acre Fund agriculture innovations manager in Burundi and help us investigate and spread new, impactful planting techniques to smallholder farmers!
American writer and environmental activist Wendell Berry once described soil as “the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all… Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
David Simiyu, Kenyan smallholder farmer, holds up a handful of soil from his land
Indeed, soil health is essential to ensuring communities all over the globe are healthy, food secure and resilient in the face of environmental shocks. Yet nowhere do Berry’s words ring more true than in sub-Saharan Africa, where smallholder farmers living on less than $2 per day depend on increasingly depleted soils to produce food for their families. Faced with poor harvests year after year, these farm families experience seasonal cycles of hunger and meal skipping.
Why Long-Term Impact Matters
One Acre Fund provides a comprehensive service bundle to 280,000 smallholder farmers living in rural Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. In everything we do, we place the farmer first, and we measure our success in our ability to make more farmers more prosperous. On average, farmers who enroll in our program realize a 50 percent increase in income on every planted acre, and produce enough food to feed their families plus a surplus. Farmers can then invest their surplus in more farmland, new business ventures, or in their children’s education.
Maurice Soita buttons up son's shirt before sending him to school
Working to break the cycle of hunger and make more farmers more prosperous is what we do every day. But in order to truly serve farmers and work in their best interests, we need to help them overcome today’s challenges while also ensuring that their grandchildren can live prosperous, healthy lives. We have a long-term vision in which every farm family has the knowledge and means to achieve big harvests, support healthy families, and cultivate rich soil. If we fulfill this vision, we will be making significant progress towards the development goals we set as a community. But more importantly, we will be helping bring a permanent end to cyclical poverty for millions of people.
What We're Doing Now
In order to make this lofty vision a reality, we have a series of initiatives – some long-standing components of our program, and some brand new – to ensure that our program will have a positive impact on farmers and their families for generations to come. Since soil health is one of the most important drivers of long-term farm viability, it is no coincidence that it is also the central theme linking these strategies.
Soil Studies: On the heels of a retrospective soil study completed in 2014, we are now conducting a longitudinal study that will give us incredible insight into the effect of our program on long-term soil health and will allow us to hold ourselves more accountable for these effects.
We have established an internal soil analytics lab, which will help ensure that soil health is an ongoing priority at One Acre Fund. With the capacity to process thousands of samples per month, we will be able to support the longitudinal study and also a wide array of farmer-focused soil health trials.
Through our robust innovations platform we are testing an extensive range of practices to boost soil health including biochar, green manure cover crops, rhizobia, conservation agriculture, and more agroforestry options. Some of the successful innovations that have made it into our core program are listed below.
We offer grevillea trees as part of our loan package to farmers. Besides providing farmers with firewood, livestock fodder and shade, these trees protect against soil erosion and keep nutrients in the ground. Grevillea leaf mulch improves soils, and like all trees they help reduce the amount of harmful CO2 gas in the atmosphere. (We offer Calliandra trees in some areas as well.)
We encourage intercropping. Intercropping allows farmers to produce greater yields on a given piece of land. It also prevents soil erosion, increases insect biodiversity (which means less pests), allows for a more diversified diet, both in terms of nutrition and timing of food availability, and provides greater assurance of food in the event that one crop fails.
We promote composting for the production of organic fertilizer. In Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda, we train farmers in compost creation and we promote this heavily. After harvest, farmers are encouraged to lay corn stalks out in their fields, covered with dirt and water. These corn stalks return nutrients to the soil as they decompose.
We offer training on sustainable agricultural practices that helps protect the soil, including topics like erosion prevention and integrated soil fertility management.
As One Acre Fund continues to grow and serve even more farmers, pioneering long-term solutions that allow us to serve farmers and protect and enhance soil health is our top priority. We look forward to sharing more information on One Acre Fund’s approach to soil health for months and years to come.
Leunisia Lungungu, Tanzanian smallholder farmer
One Acre Fund is committed to creating lasting impact for our farmers by increasing income and ensuring food security. But we also recognize our unparalleled opportunity to deliver new products and services to underserved rural smallholder farmers, dramatically enhancing their quality of life. In the past few years, One Acre Fund has trialed a number of new products, including coffee, bananas, and solar lights.
One Acre Fund has a team devoted to researching and developing these life-changing innovations. The innovations department is responsible for finding new processes, products, and services to create impact for our farmers, thoroughly testing these new innovations to prove their impact, and implementing new interventions at scale.
Each team member operates like an entrepreneur, designing, implementing, analyzing, and evaluating an intervention. If an innovation proves successful, the innovations team then works with the field operations team to create a strategy to roll it out to all farmers in the program.
The innovations process at One Acre Fund always begins with four questions:
What products or services do our farmers request?
What new product, service or process could improve the lives of our farmers?
What will allow our farmers to better utilize their income?
What will improve our operations or make them more efficient to better serve our farmers?
Next, team members brainstorm new ideas that answer these four questions. The ideas can be an entirely new product or service, or an improvement upon an existing process. During these sessions, we collaborate as a group so the team can build off one other’s suggestions.
The next step is to assign the project to one team member to begin research on the potential intervention. The research helps the team determine if the innovation is viable enough to create a trial program. Research questions include:
What is the potential impact based on research – income, food security, health, quality of life, or better service?
What is the availability of the product?
What is the cost of the product?
What is the demand from our clients for the new product and is there a potential market for the final product?
Are there potential partners doing a similar intervention to learn from or collaborate with on a trial?
Will our farmers accept and adopt the product or service?
Once we’ve answered the research questions and determined that we should move forward with a trial, we design a small-scale pilot. If it is a new agricultural product, we typically test a number of interventions in our nursery to find the best one, or if it is a simple product or service we roll it out with a small number of farmers.
During the small trial, One Acre Fund collects and analyzes in-depth data on the product. We want to make sure that the impact is not only theoretical, but tangible for our farmers.
If the intervention shows promise and proves impactful we then take trials to the next stage: testing larger-scale farmer adoption and delivering the product at scale. This phase in the trial process is necessary to refine supply chain logistics and ensure that the product is viable at scale.
Even if a trial makes it to scale, the innovation must meet final analysis criteria: Does it meet the original objectives? Does it offer sufficient impact for our farmers? Is the program replicable and easy to maintain at scale?
If a trial meets these final criteria, it is ready for full roll out. The innovations team then works with the field operations team to move it from a trial to a full program offered to all of our farmers.
One Acre Fund strives to offer quality products and services to our clients that make a meaningful impact on their lives. By continually improving our program and services through research and development, we ensure that new, high-quality innovations reach our farmers.
Part 1 of this blog post explained why we’re conducting a solar light trial in our Rwanda operation, and what we hope to find out from the trial. In short, we’re trying to determine the demand and financial impact of different solar lights, as well as whether offering solar lights fits our mission.
Though we’re still in the early stages of the trial, we have done some interviews with trial farmers to find out what they think of the lights thus far. In this blog post, we’ll share the stories of two farmers and their first experience with solar lighting.
Vincent Yambabariye is a One Acre Fund farmer in Mukimba. He joined One Acre Fund in 2010, and he decided to buy the solar lamp because he’s been able to save money from his great harvests. He believes that the lamp will help him save money that he would normally spend on batteries for his radio and flashlight.
Normally, Vincent uses candles and kerosene lamps to light his house, but the “light was not sufficient,” he says. He spends over 50,000 Rwanda francs ($85 USD) per year on lighting.
"This is an important project for One Acre Fund to extend all over the country as a way of helping farmers,” Vincent says.
Thus far, he is very happy with his lamp. He says it can even be used in the rain, if you need to stay safe when you are walking at night. He also says the light lasts for a long time. “I am going to pass the night with the light that I have not had since I was born,” he says.
Marie Jeanne Mukangamije joined One Acre Fund in 2011. She is “astonished at the opportunities” she has received, and now wishes she had joined when One Acre Fund first entered her village in 2010.
For her first season with One Acre Fund, Marie Jeanne planted maize. Because she expects a good harvest in February, she decided to buy the solar lamp to help her reduce her lighting expenses. Last year, she spent more than 60,000 Rwanda francs ($102 USD) lighting her home.
“Solar lights will help One Acre Fund enroll more clients,” she says.
She expects that the solar light will help her children study in the evenings and improve their grades at school. She herself is looking forward to listening to her radio, which has not been working because she has not had money to buy batteries for it.
Finally, she says that the solar light will help her most with her daily evening activities. “I have not had a safe supper because I always cook in darkness. Now, anytime I want, I can prepare food safely for my family.”
Vincent and Marie Jeanne believe that the solar lights will have a positive effect on their households. We look forward to sharing the impact results of our solar trial in Rwanda as it continues!
Throughout our history as farmers, we have relied on organic matter in the form of burned ashes, animal manure, seashells, and plant residues to maintain soil fertility. And although farming systems have undergone tremendous change over the past 10,000 years, organic matter is still the key to long-term soil fertility. Decomposing organic matter provides all essential nutrients to plants, creates the basis for the biological food web in the soil, improves the structure of soil and its capacity to retain air and water, and increases the retention of nutrients from mineral fertilizer.
Here in Rwanda, as the population has grown, more and more land has been taken under the hoe, at the expense of forests, fallow land, and grazing land. In such an intensive system of cultivation, organic matter is continually in short supply. This shortage presents a big challenge for One Acre Fund’s Rwandan farmers.
One strategy to address the shortage is integrated soil fertility management (ISFM), which combines the use of mineral fertilizers with organic matter. These two types of inputs build off one another, substantially improving the efficiency of both inputs as compared to applying either alone. The macronutrients in fertilizer are immediately available to plant roots and they are better conserved due to the retention power of organic matter. At the same time, the large quantities of nutrients in mineral fertilizers lessen the dependence on the already overstretched supply of organic matter, meaning that nutrient reserves in soil are not depleted.
One Acre Fund supplies farmers with mineral fertilizer, and we provide training on composting to produce more organic matter. But even in this context, it is a challenge for many farmers to get their hands on sufficient quantities of plant and animal remains.
One potential solution is cows. Cows are a popular way to produce organic matter in Rwanda, but few of our farmers own cows. There is a common belief, however, that owning a cow is an economical way to create organic matter. Unfortunately, cows are labor- and land-intensive for farmers. They are almost all raised in zero-grazing systems in which farmers must cut and carry grasses directly to their animals. Many farmers cannot grow enough grass for their cows, which makes it necessary for them to collect grass from the small amount of commons that are left, including roadsides and woodlot floors. The cow’s diet is poor in protein and energy, and cows generally underproduce milk.
Another possible solution is agroforestry. Tree roots dig deep into lower soil layers using nutrients that would otherwise be lost, and recycle them back to the soil surface in the form of leaves. One Acre Fund is beginning to trial nitrogen-fixing fodder shrubs, which can be used to produce rich fodder, mulch, and bean poles, while at the same time restoring nitrogen in the soil. Trees can be difficult for many farmers to adopt because of land shortages, but if they plant along field borders and hill contour lines they can work efficiently, especially if maintained at shrub level.
A final potential source of organic matter is human manure. Most waste streams are effectively recycled, except for human manure (humanure), which is deposited in deep pit latrines. While most people prefer to forget about this waste stream, it can be used safely provided proper composting techniques. While on average each Rwandan family does not produce enough humanure to completely cover its organic matter needs, this resource has the potential to save at least a few ares of fertility for per family per year, which is certainly not insignificant.
Integrated soil fertility management, cows, agroforestry, and human manure are imperfect solutions to supply more organic matter to Rwandan soils. One Acre Fund is exploring all four options because even a small increase in organic matter makes a difference for our farmers. In the long term, however, there must be a reduction in the population growth rate and increased opportunities for off-farm income to significantly reduce the strain on organic matter in Rwanda.
One Acre Fund believes that we must rigorously measure our client impact. But in order to measure impact, we need to understand the lives of our farmers before they join One Acre Fund.
Every May, our monitoring and evaluation department sends its agents out to the field to administer the One Acre Fund Baseline Survey. The survey consists of forty-two questions that range from “How many chickens do you have?” to “What are the 2-3 areas that you plan to spend your savings on in the future?” The answers to these questions are gathered from over one thousand first-time One Acre Fund clients and repeat clients. The data becomes part of a Baseline Survey database, intended to track the demographic and agricultural profile of One Acre Fund clients.
One of the first-time clients our agents surveyed recently was a mother of three named Helen. She lives in a mud house with a pit latrine. She owns one goat, thirteen chickens, and a cell phone. She does not have a formal bank account. Last year, she only harvested 10 bags of maize on ¾ acre of land, not enough to feed her family for the year. Before she harvests this year, she will purchase at least 1 bag (180 pounds) of maize for home consumption. Helen completed primary school, but did not go to secondary school. All three of her children are currently in school.
Gathering data from thousands of farmers like Helen allows One Acre Fund to measure its client impact, but it also adds to the cost of our field operations. Days gathering baseline data are long. Agents begin their day by traveling to village areas, where One Acre Fund field staff help direct them (usually via cell phones) to specific farmer homesteads. There can be plenty of legwork in between interviews—from office to fields, between fields, and between communities. Agents will find themselves motorbikes, bicycles, and matatus (passenger vans) to get from farmer to farmer.
In preparation for executing the surveys, agents practice techniques for efficiently asking questions, and ensuring data integrity. Agents are clued into how to avoid biasing answers (ie, not asking leading farmers to specific answers), and how to recognize honest responses. On average, an agent is able to complete one survey in twelve minutes. This season, more than one thousand surveys were completed over a six-week period, and agents aim to complete five hundred more before the upcoming harvest season.
This season, One Acre Fund’s monitoring and evaluation team integrated new questions into the baseline survey. Embedded within the survey are eleven questions that, once complied, will allow One Acre Fund to measure poverty level using a popular microfinance industry tool called the Progress Out of Poverty Index (PPI). Using this tool helps us measure our income impact, but it also allows us to provide data that can be compared with other financial services institutions.
But our survey allows us to collect a much richer level of data than the PPI. We are collecting information on rates of livestock ownership, access to arable land, and expenditure on agricultural inputs, among other household economic information. Knowing clients’ assets, hunger experience, home expenditures, and income-generating activities will help One Acre Fund continue to offer products and services that provide maximum impact to our farmers. Though measuring our impact with this level of rigor is costly, we believe it is a worthwhile investment in the long-term future of our organization.
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