BLOG Category: sustainability
Sustainability is an indicator of the efficiency of our operating model. We calculate sustainability by measuring the percentage of our direct service model and agrodealer program costs that is covered by farmer repayments.
The more sustainable we become, the fewer donor dollars we need per farmer to support our operations. It also means we generate more impact for every dollar invested, which improves our Social Return on Investment (SROI).
With the exception of 2013, when a devastating maize virus in Kenya affected farmer enrollment and revenue, our financial sustainability has been steadily increasing each year. In 2015, our financial sustainability was at 79 percent, up from 74 percent in 2014.
To improve sustainability, we focus on levers like transaction size per farmer and farmer loan repayment rate, as well as staffing ratios like clients per field officer. Each country’s path to sustainability depends on its operational context. For example, because Tanzania has a much lower population density than Rwanda, field officers in Tanzania are responsible for fewer clients. On average, farmers in Tanzania also have more land than Rwandan smallholder farmers. As a result, to improve sustainability, Tanzania will focus on increasing transaction size per farmer.
TOTAL FARMER LOAN REPAYMENTS (USD)
We continue to have strong repayment performance across our operations, so we’re focusing our efforts on increasing transaction size and impact per farmer, and clients per field officer. The scale innovations team trials operational modifications to improve those metrics, while the finance team suggests areas for cost efficiency.
Sustainability is an important organizational goal, but achieving sustainability at the expense of customer service or farmer impact is not something we’re willing to consider. Our operations have dedicated customer engagement teams to ensure that we provide quality customer service year-round. We remain as committed as ever to developing country operations that achieve financial sustainability objectives while maintaining operational excellence.
Note: As of May 1, 2016, our financial sustainability number was updated to reflect audited figures. Additionally, revenues from previous years have been adjusted to more accurately reflect our core and farm input sales business results.
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.
This blog was written by the One Acre Fund training department in Kenya. Click here and apply to become a One Acre Fund training department associate.
More than half a century ago, the Green Revolution transformed much of the world, doubling or even tripling agricultural output and bringing food security and greater prosperity to millions of families. The unsung heroes of that revolution were agricultural extension (training) agents, traveling by bicycle, motorbike or foot down rural dirt roads, carrying better farming practices and better lives with them. These agents were literally putting Norman Borlaug's famous quote into practice.
Like many farmers and the extension agents who train them, One Acre Fund farmer Jacqueline Nasonja from Webuye, Kenya relies on a bicycle as a primary mode of transport.
Despite the success of the Green Revolution in Asia and Latin America, it bypassed much of sub-Saharan Africa, where many rural farmers continue to use the same agricultural practices their forefathers used a century or more ago. Today, university-educated agricultural extension agents with motorbikes or cars continue to travel down dirt roads doing incredible work, but are massively outnumbered by the rural farmers who need them. In 2006, One Acre Fund founder Andrew Youn saw this mismatch and proposed a different approach. He realized that in order to bring "take it to the farmer" to the very last mile, a dense network of trainers was needed to communicate complex skills and knowledge quickly and efficiently.
For this role, Andrew envisioned the One Acre Fund field officer, a person like Joy Khisa. A farmer herself, Joy has always lived in the area of Kenya she serves. She has no university degree, no white Land Rover, no large salary. But Joy works with 154 families in her community, meeting them once a week all year round, to train them on topics as diverse as new planting methods, the proper use of reusable sanitary pads, financial planning, and how to maintain your solar light. Her impact and the impact of One Acre Fund Kenya’s 900 other field officers is incredible: the average One Acre Fund farmer sees approximately 50 percent more income than a similarly-situated non-One Acre Fund farmer. And Joy isn’t leaving– she will continue to work in her community, meeting the 154 families she works with once a week, every week, for many years to come. This is sustainable impact at scale.
One Acre Fund field officer Joy Khisa delivers a training to a group of farmers in Kenya.
Creating a simple, scalable, efficient training system for field officers like Joy is the responsibility of One Acre Fund’s training department. Our mission is to empower our field officers to become the most impactful change agents they can be in their communities. To achieve that goal, we focus on two areas: the information chain and long-term staff development.
The Information Chain
One Acre Fund Kenya relies on a robust chain of information to transfer knowledge and skills quickly at scale. On Monday, training materials are sent to print. By Tuesday, our nine senior field directors have been trained. By Wednesday, our 28 field directors have been trained. By Friday, our 200 field managers have been trained. By the following Monday, our 900 field officers have been trained. By the following Tuesday, 136,000 families across Kenya are learning new information and skills. In just over a week, One Acre Fund is able to reach thousands and thousands of families with life-changing knowledge.
To support this chain, we use the One Acre Fund Integrated Training System. Our training system combines a comprehensive Training of Writers course for curriculum developers, a three-month Training of Trainers course for our field team, field officer work planning tools that translate classroom concepts into a weekly agenda, and an assessment system that tests both field officer and farmer knowledge of our key concepts. Our training system draws on best practices in adult education and active learning – brainstorming, case studies, roleplays and similar strategies keep our team engaged, thinking critically and ready to solve any unexpected challenge they might encounter in the field.
Our training system doesn’t stop at impactful trainings for farmers, though. One Acre Fund’s field team is not only for farmers, it’s by farmers as well. All nine of the senior field directors at the top of our information chain in Kenya started out as field officers– and many started out as farmer clients!
One Acre Fund farmer trainings involve a high percentage of practical, hands-on learning in the field.
We use a comprehensive staff development curriculum that integrates the three parts of the ‘10/20/70’ model to build skills rapidly through rigorous classroom exercise (10 percent), one-on-one mentorship (20 percent), and practical, real-world experience (70 percent). Senior field directors may manage over 100 staff, 100,000 US dollars in microfinance loans, and 30,000 clients.
At One Acre Fund, we believe farmers are the key to their own food security, prosperity, and sustainable development. At the One Acre Fund Training Department, we work every day to help turn that belief into a reality.
Are you an education professional looking to get out in the field? Apply to become a One Acre Fund training associate.
Are you an agriculture geek looking for a job where you can get your hands dirty? Visit our jobs page to apply to one of our 25+ field-facing roles!
Agronomist Happiness Nnko (left) and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and innovations manager Emma Impink.
For farmers, healthy soil is more than just a bonus. In the farming business, ensuring long-term profitability means farmers must take good care of their most important asset: their land.
One Acre Fund knows this, and lately we’ve been investing in new activities to better understand our clients’ soil health needs. In each of our countries, One Acre Fund’s innovations teams have been working on processes for testing and analyzing soil.
Soil testing is the first step to understanding regional soil variability and ensuring long-term soil health. Currently, our innovations team in Tanzania is collecting and analyzing soil samples from farmers’ land in the sites where we work, as well as in sites in Iringa and Mbeya regions where we plan to expand in the future. What they learn will have important implications for our program.
After analyzing these soil samples, the team will use the results to inform the design of new agricultural trials to figure out which fertilizers will work best for farmers’ maize crops. After the fertilizer trials conclude in 2016, the team will compare the yields, and determine district-specific fertilizer recommendations to help farmers maximize their crop yields and protect long-term soil health.
To get the dirt on soil testing, we asked Happiness Nnko, our Tanzania agronomist, and Emma Impink, our Tanzania monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and innovations manager, to explain the nuts and bolts of soil analysis, and report on how the project is going so far.
What exactly is soil analysis?
HAPPINESS: Soil analysis is the process used to determine nutrient availability—both macro and micro nutrients—composition, and other characteristics such as the acidity or pH level. This helps to determine how much of each nutrient the soil will provide to any given crop, which will allow us to provide precise recommendations for fertilizer usage and how to maintain soil fertility.
What do you think the results of this soil analysis will show?
HAPPINESS: Well, we expect two types of results related to soil health. If soil fertility is low, then we will teach farmers different techniques to improve their soil fertility. These include techniques like inter-cropping, fallow practices, and use of compost. We also offer recommendations on the quantity and timing of fertilizer application— many farmers do not realize that micro-dosing fertilizer, or applying it in very small quantities at the proper time, is key to ensuring soil health while producing strong yields.
But if the soil is in good health, then we teach farmers to maintain the soil fertility by applying the same techniques as mentioned in the above section.
How is soil analysis conducted?
HAPPINESS: I want to warn you: this is going to be pretty technical! First, you have to determine the area that will be represented by the sample. Soil physical appearance, texture, color, slope, drainage and past management should be similar throughout the area. It sometimes is helpful to draw a map of the property and identify areas where we will collect samples.
Then, using a clean bucket, hoe and a cup, we collect samples to a depth of 20cm from random spots within the defined areas. These are called “sub-samples.” It’s important to avoid sampling field or plot edges— you want to make sure the sample you collect is representative of the soil in the area.
After you break up any lumps in the soil and remove all the stones, roots, and debris, you have to thoroughly mix sub-samples in the bucket. Once the sample is thoroughly mixed, you scoop out approximately one cup of soil and put it in a plastic bag. If soil is wet, we spread it on a clean sheet of paper to air-dry. Then we label each bag with the sample ID and complete the submission form.
The last step is to specify a Crop Code for each sample on the sample submission form we use. This will help provide the lime and nutrient recommendations. After the sample is labeled, it is sent to the laboratory for analysis.
After the soil sample is labeled, it is sent to the laboratory for analysis.
So what happens once the results are in?
EMMA: We will use the results to design a farmer-level fertilizer trial. Farmers use different types of fertilizers in small test and control plots in their farms. This will help us to refine our fertilizer recommendations for maximum yields. We will also plan for long-term soil improvement and soil health management once we know which nutrients are depleted in our soils. And then finally, we will create new trainings and products that will restore and improve soil health.
Do you ever tell farmers you wouldn’t recommend they farm with One Acre Fund because they have bad soil?
EMMA: Never. My hope is that we can develop systems—recommendations, products and trainings– that will help make any soil productive for the crops that a farmer wants to grow.
Amongst One Acre Fund farmers, are there different types of soils?
EMMA: Absolutely! There are a lot of different soil types, all of which hold nutrients and water totally differently. Different types of soil may serve as optimal growing environments for certain crops and not for others. The presence or absence of different nutrients will affect crop growth in different ways. We need to make sure we are offering dynamic planting trainings that allow farmers to take advantage of the nutrients present in their land and the characteristics of their unique soil type.
Why soil is so important to farmers?
EMMA: Soil is everything! Soil is our foundation, sustaining life and nourishing the crops that our farmers grow to support their families!
Agronomist Happiness Nnko and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and innovations manager Emma Impink prepare to label a soil sample.
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
On March 30th, 2015, One Acre Fund hosted its bi-annual open analyst call. These calls are an excellent opportunity to learn about One Acre Fund’s progress towards achieving country-specific milestones, and to ask senior leadership questions about the organization’s plans for the future.
One Acre Fund co-founder Andrew Youn began the call by reporting on growth over the last six months. The core program is now reaching over 280,000 clients, up from 200,000 in 2014. With second season enrollment in Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania later this year, field operations are on track to reach our target of serving 300,000 farmers in 2015.
Below are some of the country-specific highlights that were announced:
• Kenya: Achieved 100 percent repayment in 2014 for the first time ever, fueling record enrollment in 2015.
• Rwanda: Enrolled over 100,000 total clients in our second season – the best we’ve done (percentage-wise) since 2012 in retaining first-season clients.
• Burundi: Significant improvements in planting compliance drove a tripling of the impact per farmer in 2014 (relative to 2013).
• Tanzania: Reached 9,000 farmers in just its second official season – the fastest new country operation to do so.
In addition to reporting on country-level progress during the call, we also highlighted several exciting new trials and product offerings, including
• Distribution of high-quality reusable sanitary pads from AFRIpads.
• Adoption of hybrid maize seed in immature and mature seed markets.
• Expansion of energy portfolio to include wider distribution of solar lamps, introduction of cook-stove distribution.
We ended the bi-annual call by telling the inspiring story of John Muhevi, a young One Acre Fund farmer in Chwele district in Western Kenya.
John Muhevi in his fields.
John joined One Acre Fund in 2011. He and his wife Elizabeth have four children and also care for Elizabeth’s niece. Since joining One Acre Fund, John has consistently harvested around 9-10 bags of maize each season on his half-acre farm.
“The day I finished my first One Acre Fund harvest was the happiest day of my life. I knew I would harvest a lot of maize, but nine bags, wow! That was way more than what I had expected.”
Following One Acre Fund’s advice, John held on to three of his bags until the market prices had peaked, when he sold them at a huge profit. On these bags he affixed One Acre Fund labels reading “tatu hadi tatu”. That’s Swahili for “three until three”, meaning that he should save three bags of maize until March, the third month of the year, when the market price of maize increases dramatically.
With the money he earned from selling his maize, John was able to buy a cow, which has since given birth to a calf. John keeps some milk for his children and sells the rest to his neighbors. He was also able to rent land to grow sweet potatoes, which his family sells every week at the market. John’s latest business venture? Growing watermelon.
John has used the proceeds from his sweet potatoes, milk, and watermelon to pay school fees, expand his home, and to increase the size of his One Acre Fund loan.
“One Acre Fund taught me to see farming as a business. I’m therefore doing farming as a businessman. My main aim is not only to grow enough for my family, but to make a profit.”
In pursuit of our organizational goals, One Acre Fund is also making progress towards the goals of the Zero Hunger Challenge. One Acre Fund joined the Zero Hunger Challenge in November 2014, and has been tracking progress against our commitments to this important initiative. We hope that you’ll join us by taking the challenge yourself, and help us eliminate hunger in our lifetimes.
This blog was written by David Guerena, One Acre Fund agriculture innovations manager, and Margaret Vernon, country director for One Acre Fund Burundi. A version of this blog was originally published on SciDev.net. To read the original blog, click here.
Humans are intricately tied to soil. 95 percent of our food and fiber come from the soil, and over 99.9 percent of our fresh drinking water passes through soil. We even define ourselves by our relationship to soil: the words “human” and “humanity” are linguistically rooted in “humus” – which is the fertile upper portion of the soil.
In spite of the connections, many of us fail to consider the importance of preserving the health of the earth’s soils for generations to come. In sub-Saharan Africa, where the population will more than double by 2050, an estimated 65 percent of soils are degraded. This translates to poor harvests, malnutrition, and chronic hunger for millions.
When we think about the role of soil in the food security equation, it’s no wonder that the U.N. General Assembly chose to designate 2015 the International Year of Soils. With more than half the world moving to urban areas, it’s important that we take time to appreciate our relationship to soil, and talk about what we can do to keep it healthy:
1. If we want to reduce global hunger, a healthy soil biosphere is crucial. 70 percent of poor people in rural areas depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. These rural areas comprise large numbers of smallholder farmers, who cultivate less than 2 acres of land. Lacking access to quality inputs, tools, training, and financing, smallholder farmers are often at the mercy of unproductive soil. Promoting soil health, through strategies such as agroforestry, intercropping, and composting, is one important way to increase the productivity of these small plots of land. This in turn which smallholder farming communities increase their resilience to environmental shocks and grow their way out of hunger and poverty.
2. Soil is the greatest reservoir and the last frontier of biodiversity. Most known antibiotics come from organisms that were isolated from the soil. The soil biosphere controls the cycling of most major plant nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. What other secrets are held in the soil biosphere? In 1 gram (one pinch) of soil, there are over 1 billion individual organisms and over 1 million unique species! We know less than 1% of who they are and less then 1% of 1% of what they do.
3. Soil is a highly valuable—and in our lifetime, non-renewable—resource. According to The Land Institute, soil is every bit as non-renewable as oil, and it is essential for human survival. Soil takes thousands of years to develop just a few inches. A rich, deep soil that may have taken more than 100,000 years to form can be lost over night due to soil erosion. We can think of soils as a very thin skin that surrounds Earth, connecting the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere. Frankling D. Roosevelt once said, “a nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”
4. We can’t combat climate change without focusing on soil. Climate change is driven by atmospheric carbon. Surprisingly, soil can absorb nearly twice as much carbon as can be contained within plants and the atmosphere combined! Soil’s enormous capacity to absorb more carbon has additional benefits: adding carbon to the soil via plant materials (compost, green manure, animal manure, biochar) will actually reduce carbon (and thereby the amount of carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere. Increasing the amount of carbon in soil will also allow the soil to capture and hold more rainwater, which reduces the amount of soil erosion and increases the soil’s ability to filter ground water, which increases water quality.
5. Ensuring soil health involves innovation and perseverance. Agriculture for Impact recently released a Montpellier Panel report in which they call for a ‘big data’ revolution to amass helpful data on soil type and quality. AGRA has trained almost two million smallholder farmers in 13 countries in Integrated Soil Fertility Management practices, helping them acquire the inputs they need to revive their lands and boost their yields. One Acre Fund trains farmers in East Africa on intercropping and composting techniques, and offers loan products that have a positive environmental impact, such as grevillea trees and solar lights. These efforts to improve soil health may take time to produce results, but will ultimately ensure that existing farmland is more productive for generations to come.
Soil is part of the solution to some of the greatest dilemmas of our time. It plays a critical role in mitigating the effects of climate change, increasing farm productivity and food security, and may hold the answers to eradicating antibiotic resistance. If we truly want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals we’ve set for ourselves, we can’t afford to not focus on soil health, this year and every year.
As we celebrate the UN International Year of Soils, it’s worth noting that humans have a contradictory relationship to soil. Words like “dirty” and “soiled” carry negative connotations, yet soil is integral to how we define ourselves as humans. Interestingly, the word “human” is linguistically rooted in humus – the fertile upper portion of the soil.
Healthy soil is a prerequisite for achieving global food security. 70 percent of the world’s poor living in rural areas depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. This means they depend on soil.
Interested in more soil-related facts? Did you know that:
• 95% of our food and fiber come from soils?
• 99.9% of our fresh drinking water passes through the soil?
• 65% of soils in sub-Saharan Africa are degraded, yet the number of hungry mouths to feed in this region will more than double by 2050?
One Acre Fund is planning to spend a lot of time in 2015 digging into soils (pun intended). But our own soil research very much relies on the body of information already assembled by others. We want to take a moment to highlight the ground-breaking (get it?) work being done by some the unsung heroes of soil science:
• Dr. Nancy Karanja – Professor of Soil Ecology at the University of Nairobi. Leading expert on biological nitrogen fixation in Africa and, more recently, African urban agriculture.
• Dr. Rattan Lal – Professor of Soil Science and Director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at the Ohio State University. Continues to be a champion for the importance of soil organic matter to smallholder farm productivity in the developing world.
Watch this video of Dr. Rattan Lal as he explains carbon sequestration in soil.
• Dr. Pedro Sanchez – Emeritus Professor of Soil Science at North Carolina State University, former Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), current director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. One of the people who brought soils and international agriculture to the forefront of modern humanitarian challenges.
• Dr. Daniel Hillel – Emeritus Professor of Soil Science at the University of Massachusetts and pioneer in the development of drip irrigation in the 1950’s. Preeminent philosopher of soil.
• Dr. Ken Giller – Professor of Plant Production Systems at Wageningen University. Pioneer in improving biological nitrogen fixation for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.
• Dr. Bernard Vanlauwe – Director of Natural Resource Management for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), and pioneer of the concept of Integrated Soil Fertility Management for smallholder farmers.
• Dr. Ray Weil – Professor of Soil Science at the University of Maryland, co-author of the widely-referenced book, “Elements of the Nature and Properties of Soils.”
Though they probably never expected to be listed as heroes, we want to say thank you to soil scientists all over the world who have devoted their lives to studying (and extoling the virtues of) healthy soil.
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.
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