BLOG Category: trials
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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Louis Terren had been working for corporations for almost five years when he came across One Acre Fund in an article about non-profit careers. He immediately visited the website, and after reading about the organization’s impressive impact, decided to apply to the new country expansion team.
Here, Louis shares his experiences working on One Acre Fund’s first-ever pilot in East Asia, and offers some sound advice for would-be applicants interested in applying to work with One Acre Fund.
What does it mean to be a New Country Scout for One Acre Fund?
Being a new country scout means being professionally curious, driven and adaptable. My role is exciting and energizing, but also requires flexibility and a willingness to see an unconventional set up as an adventure rather than a barrier. Initially, during my first three weeks in-country, I worked out of a hotel room and traveled to the field everyday on a Honda scooter. These days, I still spend a lot of time in the field, studying the market and checking that our strategy makes sense. It can be tricky though, because now I also interview candidates to build our Myanmar team, and am responsible for office and administrative work, which must be done after I get back from the field. Pilot teams are small, so people often carry a wide range of responsibilities, but we also get to work on a lot of new and exciting projects at once…it’s a trade-off!
Can you tell us more about One Acre Fund’s early-stage work in Myanmar?
One Acre Fund is running a pilot program in Myanmar. We’re based in Pyay, a town in Bago province, along the Irrawaddy River. Here, farmers mostly grow rice during the monsoon season and beans and sesame in the dry season. I flew down here four months ago to launch the pilot.
Our goal for this pilot is to test whether One Acre Fund’s model could increase farmer incomes significantly in Myanmar. We’re specifically interested in trying to raise farm profitability for smallholder farmers through yield increase and credit cost reduction. Farmers in Myanmar cultivate many different crops, but the most common crop in the Bago region where we’re located is rice. Unfortunately, rice has not been a very profitable crop for farmers here due to low yields and high costs of labor. So we are piloting a fertilizer loan program at low interest rates to give farmers the opportunity to earn greater profits by increasing the productivity of their land.
What is team Myanmar working on at the moment?
This week, farmers are forming groups to enroll in our program, so I’m in the field everyday with our field director and field officers.
If you were to stop by our office in town, you’d meet Joseph, my agronomist colleague, who is preparing our cultivation training curriculum in Burmese, and Gloria, our accountant, who is closing the books for March and setting up our CRM system. Later this year, we’re planning to research and potentially launch other interventions, such as mechanization, access to markets, cash crops, and an open research station for seed selection and agronomy trials.
What are the priorities for the Myanmar pilot moving forward?
One Acre Fund has a decade of experience in field operations serving farm families; we hope to leverage our learnings and systems from East Africa to replicate our impactful programs in the Burmese context. The fundamentals are similar: 70 percent of the population are farmers with very low yields, and who pay very high interest rates to invest in inputs for their farms.
Interestingly, unlike many of our customers in East Africa, most Burmese farmers do not struggle to grow enough to feed their families year-round. However, farmers unfortunately aren’t generating enough profits from their activities to improve their quality of life and achieve financial security. Farmers rely heavily on very high interest rate credits to cover emergency and living expenses between harvests. Our priority is to create programs that can raise farmer annual revenues so that they can build a financial safety net and break free of this debt cycle.
What is your favorite thing about working for One Acre Fund?
I love our complete focus on impact. The organization is very effective at changing farmers’ lives in Africa, and it’s an extremely rewarding project to be part of. I hope we will achieve the same with Burmese farmers.
What has been the biggest lesson you've learned so far at One Acre Fund?
“Success is in the details” is my motto these days. In One Acre Fund jargon it’s called “zooming in”, meaning project managers need to go deep into the operational details to make sure their strategy is implementable. Often times, an idea makes sense on paper and looks promising, but it fails in the field because of simple logistical things like “farmers can’t read” or “you can’t carry 200 kilograms of fertilizer on one motorbike.” One Acre Fund has a culture of building the strategy from the field up, starting with farmer surveys and focus groups, then building up into excel models, and then back down into a field trial, and back up for analysis and strategic pivots. In my opinion, it’s this constant back-and-forth between the field and the drawing board that has made the organization excellent at execution.
Do you have any advice for candidates applying to one of our roles in Myanmar?
Pack your hobbies in your suitcase and start learning Burmese! But in all seriousness, if you’re interested in a career that combines professional rigor with a little bit of risk and a lot of impact potential, I highly recommend applying to a role on our new country scouting team.
Germana stands with her bags of her maize.
A 61-year-old mother of three, Germana Nevele had farmed for decades, but with little success. Her harvest was often a meager six bags, barely enough to feed her family. Even in good years, a lack of access to markets meant there were no opportunities for Germana to sell any surplus she grew.
In 2013, Germana heard about One Acre Fund and was impressed by the loan offering. She decided to join, hoping to earn a larger profit from her harvest. In her first season with One Acre Fund, Germana enrolled for one acre of land and harvested more than 16 bags of maize.
“I used to help other people to weed their farms to get money to buy extra food and pay for the education of my children,” she says. “Now, I never work for other people.”
For many Tanzanian farmers like Germana, poor harvests are just one of the barriers they face in the fight to achieve food security. Lack of access to markets is another barrier—poor roads and lack of infrastructure, long distances to the nearest towns, and high transportation costs prevent farmers from selling their harvest surplus and turning their farms into profitable businesses.
To help farmers truly maximize their farm income, One Acre Fund is trialling a market access program in Iringa, Tanzania. In September 2014, One Acre Fund offered to purchase up to three bags of maize per farmer, and collected 150 metric tons of maize from farmers across 13 villages in the region. During the 2015 season, we adjusted the trial to test buying as much maize as each farmer would like to sell, and collected more than 250 metric tons of maize across 16 villages.
After purchasing maize from farmers, One Acre Fund is able to sell it in bulk quantities to large processing companies. In this way, we’re helping smallholder farmers reach markets they would not otherwise be able to access.
Germana watches on as bags of her maize are loaded onto a One Acre Fund truck.
“We want farmers to be able to maximize their farm income to improve their lives,” Veronica Kindole, a manager on the One Acre Fund scale innovations team, says. “We innovate based on what farmers say they need.”
Germana is just one of the farmers who has been impacted by this new program. Now, she no longer worries about whether she’ll be able to sell her surplus at market. She knows that come harvest time, she can count on selling her maize at a reasonable price.
“I am so happy that now I can sell my maize right from my village with the same price as it is in town,” Germana says.
One Acre Fund is in the process of collecting data on the trial, and will determine next steps based on our findings and feedback from farmers. For Germana, gaining access to this market opportunity has already resulted in less uncertainty, more cash in her pocket, and a year of schooling for her children. We look forward to sharing more stories about the impact of this trial on the farmers we serve.
Interested in helping smallholder farmers in Tanzania maximize their harvest profits? Apply to become One Acre Fund's Tanzania deputy country director today!
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Last month, One Acre Fund hosted its bi-annual open analyst call. During these calls, One Acre Fund founder Andrew Youn discusses the organization’s progress towards achieving key performance indicators, announces country-specific milestones, and shares plans for the future. On this call, we learned about One Acre Fund's promising growth projections and new country expansion plans.
The call began with a report on growth over the last six months. The One Acre Fund core program is now projected to reach 314,000 farmers by year-end, exceeding our goal to reach 305,000 farmers in 2015. This is a 33 percent increase in farmers served since 2014.
A One Acre Fund warehouse in Rwanda.
In Kenya, our field team is almost finished collecting repayment from farmers for 2015. Enrollment recently opened for the 2016 season, and demand for the program is running ahead of projections. In Rwanda, 98 percent of farmers repaid their loans, slightly above last year’s repayment rate, and input distribution for the 2016A season (September through March) was completed.
Excitingly, Burundi was able to close the 2015B season (March-June) at 100 percent repayment for the second year in a row, and input distribution for the 2016A season was completed. And in Tanzania, we added a new operating region, Mbeya, this past season. It is the largest operating region geographically of any existing One Acre Fund country operation, which presents us with new learning opportunities for serving farmers with larger average land sizes.
Youn dedicated the final portion of the call to a deep dive on One Acre Fund’s new country expansion plans. After outlining One Acre Fund’s phased trial approach for new countries— which begins with market analysis, then initial scouting and progresses to pilot launch— Youn provided in-depth updates on three new country pilots: Malawi, Uganda and Zambia.
Headquartered in Zomba, One Acre Fund’s Malawi pilot presents an incredible opportunity to reach the 1.9 million food-insecure farm families that could benefit from our core program. 90 percent of the workforce in Malawi works in agriculture, and One Acre Fund has extensive experience working with the primary staple crop of Malawi, maize.
Uganda has a very similar farmer profile to that of Kenya— high population density and reliance on maize and beans. However, because farmer adoption of hybrid seed and fertilizer is much lower than in Kenya, there is a big opportunity to serve Ugandan farmers beyond One Acre Fund’s pilot site in Kamuli.
Zambia is our newest country pilot. The country has a lower population density and larger plot sizes, which will allow us to test out model adaptations such as larger loans, a more robust market access program, and R&D on mechanized tools (e.g. tractors).
Keep an eye out for our next analyst call six months from now, when we will provide updates on how all these initiatives are proceeding.
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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.
Scaling resuable sanitary pads in Kenya is just one of the exciting projects our program associates work on. If you want a meaningful job that takes you to the field, apply to be a One Acre Fund program associate today!
When One Acre Fund’s field officers in Webuye, Kenya met with farmer groups in January 2015, they had more than the usual planting trainings to deliver. All 49 field officers (both men and women) in the district were on a mission. Their goal? To explain the benefits of AFRIpads reusable sanitary pads, which were selected after in-depth evaluation by our product innovations team as a product farmers could choose to purchase on top of the standard One Acre Fund package.
Webuye district was the site of our first farmer trials for reusable sanitary pads. The So Sure Pads, made by AFRIpads, have a lot to offer: at only $6 USD, they come in a pack of 4 pads, can be used for 12+ months, are highly absorbent, are easy to wash, and dry quickly. They offer women and girls a more sanitary option than cloth materials, and for those who can afford to purchase disposable pads, AFRIpads also wind up being more cost effective than purchasing expensive disposable pads every month.
A field officer demonstrates the absorbency of the reusable pads at a farmer group meeting.
After hearing their One Acre Fund field officer explain the benefits of reusable sanitary pads, Pamela and Francesca, two female farmers in Webuye District, immediately signed up to purchase them. Both women are experienced One Acre Fund farmers with extensive practice using the improved planting techniques learned in One Acre Fund trainings and strong track records of improved harvests and increased incomes. Yet this was the very first time either woman had stopped to consider how reusable sanitary pads could also improve their productivity and incomes.
Pamela lives close to a main road in Webuye. Until now, she had relied on disposable pads, spending 200-220 Kenyan shillings ($2-2.25 USD) each month. “I dreaded my periods would start at a time in the month when I didn’t have money to purchase pads,” she recalls.
For Francesca, disposable sanitary pads were a luxury she often couldn’t afford. “During the hunger season, I had to make a choice between either buying food or sanitary pads. In most cases I could not allow my children to go hungry, so I would buy food and then cut pieces from old clothes and blankets to use as pads,” Francesca explains. “Sometimes, I would not join other people or visit my friends because I worried that I smelled or might leak. I stayed in the house alone the whole day.”
Lack of access to adequate menstrual hygiene education and products is a barrier to the health and freedom of women and girls. In our research, 62 percent of One Acre Fund farmers report using ‘traditional materials’ during their menstrual cycles, such as cloth, pieces of blankets, mattresses, or cotton wool. Many women go through their day fearing that these materials may leak, or worse, fall out, while they’re in a meeting or working in their fields. On average, One Acre Fund farmers can afford disposable pads 43 percent of the time. But during the hunger season, disposable pads represent a big expense; many choose to spend their extra cash on food or on school fees for their children.
The issue affects the potential and productivity of girls in school as well. Farmers’ daughters will often skip school if they don’t have pads to use, or sit in class distracted and unable to focus because of embarrassment. One woman told a story of how, as a young girl, “one time I didn’t have money, so I used cotton. It distracted me and was uncomfortable. I was in class, anxious, and the teacher asked me to go to the front of the room. I was too afraid and I didn’t go. The teacher slapped me – it ruined my relationship with the teacher and it was hard to get anything from the class. I would make up stories to skip and school.”
When One Acre Fund set out to tackle this issue, we started with evaluating every option on the market. There are many terrific products out there, but what would be most comfortable, hygienic, affordable, and feasible to deliver to our farmers? We came up with a few ideas, and then used direct farmer testing – women are happy to try something new – to find out. We determined that reusable pads were recognizable because all women are already familiar with disposable pads, more hygienic than menstrual cups since many farmers do not have running water, and more affordable and efficient than a year’s supply of disposable pads, which generates a huge amount of waste in places without a waste disposal system. With AFRIpads selected as our best option, our goal was to offer reusable sanitary pads at full-scale, across all One Acre Fund districts in Kenya.
Farmers in Kenya were surprised to see One Acre Fund branch out into health products. Even though most One Acre Fund farmers had never heard of a reusable sanitary pad before, One Acre Fund sold a whopping 2,000 packets of pads in just two weeks! Unsurprisingly, female farmers were eager to purchase the pads, and male farmers also bought them for their wives and daughters.
Francesca Nasambu, from Webuye district, Kenya, holding her reusable sanitary pads.
We visited Francesca and Pamela in June, several months after they received the reusable pads they’d purchased. Happily, their plentiful harvests were getting them successfully through the period of the year they used to refer to as the hunger season.
“I love these pads. They feel dry and comfortable, and sometimes I forget that I’m even wearing them because they are very light,” Pamela told us. In just two months of not purchasing disposable pads, she was able to save 400 Kenyan shillings (about $4 USD), which she put towards the purchase a chicken. She hopes investing in poultry will generate more income for her family.
Francesca is also very happy. She feels comfortable in the pads and no longer feels confined to her home for days out of every month. She has told the women she knows about the benefits of reusable pads and hopes they’ll purchase them from One Acre Fund as well.
Pamela and Francesca weren’t the only farmers who felt AFRIpads had made an improvement in their lives. A farmer survey we conducted found that 97 percent of women felt the pads were better than what they had used previously, and 88 percent would ‘definitely recommend’ them to friends. One Acre fund is still finalizing a randomized control trial to better understand the economic and quality-of-life impact of reusable sanitary pads, but we know this product is popular with farmers.
One Acre Fund Kenya will be offering reusable pads to all farmers and staff (who have been asking for them!) in 2016. We're eager to hear more stories about the positive impact these pads will have for females farmers and their daughters.
Scaling resuable sanitary pads in Kenya is just one of the exciting projects our program associates work on. If you want a meaningful job that takes you to the field, apply to be a One Acre Fund program associate today!
Summer is winding down, and with it the 2015 UN International Year of Soils. But here at One Acre Fund, where our guiding mission is to help smallholder farmers improve their productivity and increase their incomes, our dirt obsession is still going strong.
Every year, we trial hundreds of new products, in an effort to test which agriculture innovations will generate the greatest impact for our clients. A new product is considered scalable if it passes muster with farmers, and is simple enough to distribute efficiently and cost-effectively.
Increasingly, however, we’re focused on innovations that will boost farmer resilience to environmental shocks. We’re on the hunt for new products that are not only good for farmers in the short-term, but also for the long-term health of their families and their land.
Here, we share five trials we recently conducted whose results have exciting implications for soil health and farmer resilience.
1. Maize-Legume Intercropping
Maize was originally domesticated in Central America approximately 10,000 years ago, where the native Mesoamericans developed an ingenious system of planting maize interspersed with beans (known as “the three sisters,” along with squash) that sustained agricultural productivity for millennia. In this intercropping system, the particular biology of the two crops are exploited and synergized: maize is a heavy feeder of soil nitrogen, while beans, which are legumes, increase soil nitrogen by biologically extracting nitrogen from the air.
Smallholder farmers in Africa also commonly use maize/bean intercropping to increase soil nitrogen and agricultural productivity. One Acre Fund conducted a series of maize/legume intercropping trials in order determine the optimum species and arrangement to provide farmers with significant and positive economic and food security impacts. Read the full trial report and results.
2. Grevillea Trees
Agroforestry is the practice of incorporating trees into agricultural landscapes. Trees offer a variety of benefits for smallholder farmers. They provide a source of fuel wood for domestic cooking, timber for construction, shade, fruit (e.g. mangos, avocados), fodder for livestock, and green manure for improving soil fertility. When grown alongside other crops, trees contribute to food and financial security for smallholder farmers. In addition, they provide several environmental benefits. These include increasing on-farm biodiversity, protecting the soil from erosion, and sequestering atmospheric carbon in their biomass.
In the 2013 Long Rains season, One Acre Fund distributed grevillea tree seed and trainings to over 60,000 farmers, and tested new planting and training techniques to maximize impact. Our report explains how we decided on grevillea trees as a product to test, and reviews trial outcomes and next steps.
3. Lime Application
Due to climate and geology, African soils can be relatively acidic. The vast majority of smallholder farmers in East Africa cultivate acidic soils— the severity of the acidity is variable, but in Kenya, the Ministry of Agriculture estimates that around 50 percent of smallholders in western Kenya may be farming soils with pH below 5.5, where optimum pH for plant growth is 6.5.
Soil acidity is important for several reasons. Firstly, at low soil pH (more acidic), nutrients abundant in the soil become unavailable for plants to utilize. This frequently results in plant nutrient deficiencies and poor yields. Secondly, low pH makes fertilizer less efficient, meaning more fertilizer is needed to achieve the same level of harvest. And finally, some elements in the soil (like aluminum) can become toxic at low pH levels.
While One Acre Fund currently combats soil acidification by recommending practices like fertilizer microdosing and compost use, our trials indicate that agricultural lime may be a promising method for managing soil acidity.
Common beans are the second most widely grown crop in East Africa. In Rwanda, they are the primary staple crop. A leguminous plant, common beans have the ability to take nitrogen (N) from the air and use it for their growth (most plants derive nitrogen from the soil only). This process is referred to as biological nitrogen fixation.
In modern agriculture, fertilizer nitrogen is one of the most costly inputs for farmers. By focusing on low-cost ways to improve biological nitrogen fixation—for example, through the use of rhizobia, symbiotic soil bacteria that attach to plant roots and fix nitrogen in the soil— farmers can maintain high bean yields while applying only a fraction of the normal amount of fertilizer.
One Acre Fund’s rhizobia trial tested six different configurations of fertilizer and rhizobia inoculant with climbing bean seed. Read the full report to find out what we learned.
Historically, common bean has been the dominant legume for smallholder farmers in East Africa. However, over the past few decades, local governments and development and research organizations have pushed for greater cultivation of soybean.
Soybean offers several advantages over common bean: it has a nitrogen fixation potential six times greater than common bean; and it can be made into soymilk, soy mince, dry-roasted soy “nuts” and soybean oil. It is also one of the top global agricultural commodities and has a greater demand on the international market than common beans. Soybean’s potential to improve food security and increase the livelihoods of millions of African farming families is illustrated by the results of our trial.
Want to geek out on even more agriculture innovations trials? Visit One Acre Fund’s online resource library for free access to our downloadable trial reports.
Crop research station in Kenya.
One Acre Fund’s crop research stations are where we test out new ideas in a controlled environment. They are the starting point for most of the larger-scale agricultural trials that we conduct with Kenyan farmers. We hope that the ideas we test on our research stations will one day translate into significant impact for all the farmers we work with.
The trials we conduct vary widely. We test new crop types, crop varieties, planting methods, fertilizers, disease management, and other ideas for improving farmers’ yields. Trials that are successful and show a lot of potential in the research station typically move on be tested in “trial districts,” where we work with actual One Acre Fund farmers and get additional feedback on how the intervention could work at a larger scale.
Our first research station in Kenya was initially opened in 2007 and was just one acre in size. However, over the last several years, we have been working to significantly increase the capacity and scientific rigor of our research stations. In Kenya, we now operate four agricultural research stations in three different agro-ecological zones totaling about 26 acres. This is in addition to our livestock research station and a station focused primarily on tree research. This increased capacity allows us to carry out almost 100 different trial configurations every season.
We also have a highly trained and professional staff that is dedicated to doing great science and ensuring high data quality in service to our farmers. We’ve begun collaborating with experts to raise our trial methods to the highest standards used by international agricultural research institutes.
We’ve tested some great ideas in our research stations, and we hope that some will be successful enough to be rolled out across our entire program. Some examples of our trials are:
Intercropping legumes. We believe intercrops are a way for farmers to get more out of their land, diversify their crops, and grow legumes that are both nutritious and good for soil health. These include beans, soybeans, groundnuts, and cowpeas.
Bean disease. We are testing new varieties of bean that are more resistant to disease as well as disease management methods.
Maize lethal necrosis disease (MLND). At our station near Kisii, we continue to test new maize varieties in search of a highly MLND-tolerant seed.
Vegetables. We have been working on vegetable crops that farmers could grow in small quantities, such as in homestead gardens. Crops such as red onions and carrots, as well as local vegetables like managu and saga, improve nutrition and also fetch a good price at the market.
Low rainfall crops. At our station near Homa Bay, we are testing different types of crops and planting methods that could help farmers in low and variable rainfall zones. These include pigeon peas, green grams, and sorghum.
While our research stations are most commonly used to test new innovations, they’ve also come in handy in times of crisis. For example, they played an important role in One Acre Fund’s response to maize lethal necrosis disease (MLND), a deadly crop disease which swept Kenya a few years ago. We were able to use our research stations to test methods and inputs for new crops like millet and sorghum, which allowed farmers to diversify their farms and protect against the risks associated with planting maize.
Moving forward, we are excited to continue to use our research stations to generate new ideas for potential agricultural products that could greatly improve our farmers’ harvests and livelihoods.
Want to read more about One Acre Fund's agriculture trials? Visit our online library for detailed white papers and trial reports.
Kenya dairy cow trial participant Mary Machikha feeds her cow.
One of the many ways One Acre Fund farmers choose to re-invest the extra income they generate from successful harvests is through business investments such as livestock. Livestock— and cows in particular— are productive assets, providing farmers with a source of food, milk and natural fertilizer. The sale of milk from cows is an additional income-generating enterprise for farmers, for whom diversified revenue streams represent increased resiliency and food security.
Many One Acre Fund farmers in Kenya own at least one dairy cow. However, most have only local breeds, and produce very little milk. We thought that by helping farmers to improve cow health and milk production, One Acre Fund might be able to generate impact for our farmers. Our goal was to test and develop products that would allow farmers to boost their milk production, thus giving households more milk to consume and to sell.
The first step was a small-scale trial, to see if our ideas worked. In 2014, the very first year of our diary cow trial, we offered a consolidated package of dairy products:
Artificial Insemination (AI) with a foreign breed that has high milk production, thus giving the farmer a hybrid calf that produces more milk (females) or can be sold for more money (males). Hybrid cows are still better adapted to the local environment and less susceptible to diseases than purely foreign breeds.
Cow health products, including de-wormers, minerals, and tick spray, all of which can improve milk production by keeping the cow healthy.
Pasture crops, in particular Desmodium and Boma Rhodes (grass). These crops are high in nutrients for cows, and cows that are fed well produce a lot more milk.
In 2015, the second year of the trial, we decided to give farmers more choice, and we broke the package into three separate products. Farmers were then able to take different combinations. For example, they might have wanted to purchase only the cow health product or only an AI service.
In many aspects, the trials have worked quite well. One key example is our highly professional and prompt AI service. When a farmer’s cow is ready to be inseminated, they call our One Acre Fund Cow Hotline, and an AI technician is dispatched to visit the farmer as soon as possible. Farmers report being very satisfied with the service. Many farmers were not sure what to expect, but were very happy when their cows gave birth to healthy, hybrid calves.
As with all trials, our success is sometimes tempered by challenges that we must overcome in order to increase the scale. The biggest challenge for the dairy cow trial thus far has been low adoption/demand. Many farmers are unfamiliar with the products we’re testing. Some products are also rather complex, so it is more difficult for farmers to see the direct benefits of what they buy.
This season, we are using new strategies for marketing our products, with the goal of improving understanding and adoption among farmers. These include training “product promoters” who receive a free product and are responsible for teaching other farmers about the benefits. We are also developing a short marketing video that will be shown to farmers and will highlight all of the benefits of the dairy cow products and how they work. We hope that these strategies will boost demand, and that these products will in turn contribute to an increase in incomes for the farmers who use them.
Welcome to Malawi, one of One Acre Fund’s newest pilot countries. We arrived here in 2013, and in our first pilot season we had just 71 farmers working with us in the southern district of Zomba.
Malawi represents a brand new agricultural context for One Acre Fund. Like in our other countries, maize is the dominant crop. But in addition to maize, farmers here plant different crops (such as pigeon peas) and use different practices (such as ridge planting) than we have encountered elsewhere. As such, we’ve had a lot to learn! Much of our effort over the last year has focused on conducting rigorous agriculture trials to figure out how we can maximize harvests for Malawian farmers.
Now in our second growing season, the Malawi pilot has expanded quickly to 939 farm families. Last year a full 100 percent of farmers repaid their loans – an amazing accomplishment, and an indication of how much farmers value the program. Here, two One Acre Fund farmers from Malawi tell us their stories.
Meet Linley Kachapila
Linley is a proud mother and a caring wife who resides in Mandota, Malawi. She is a strong woman, and puts immense effort into the farming that sustains her family. She turned 52 years old this year.
Linley grows maize for a living. With the food she harvests at the end of the season, Linley has to feed her entire family and support her five children. She needs to sell part of the harvest in order to buy other varieties of food, additional clothing, and other essential day-to-day items.
Before joining One Acre Fund, Linley’s harvests were too small. They left her family hungry and lacking basic necessities. “I spent a lot of money buying expensive seed and fertilizer from local stores, but what I harvested at the end of the season still wasn’t enough,” Linley says. She was investing all her time and money, but had very little to show for it.
Linley heard about One Acre Fund from her village chief. When she heard the details of the program, she was convinced that this might be the change she needed.
Soon after, Linley joined a group and registered with One Acre Fund with the hopes of improving her yields and reducing her farming expenses. She also saw One Acre Fund’s loan – made in the form of seeds and fertilizer – as an opportunity to mitigate her cash flow problems. For the first time, she would have cash on hand when her family needed it, and be able to pay back the loan bit by bit.
In her first year with One Acre Fund, Linley planted a quarter-acre with the maize seed and fertilizer she received as part of her loan package. She received trainings on how to space her seeds and carefully apply small amounts of fertilizer (called micro dosing), and she applied them conscientiously. At the end of the year, she couldn’t believe her eyes – her little quarter-acre of land had produced a harvest of 11 bags of maize. Up until that point, her very best year had been only 6 bags.
This year, Linley has enrolled a half-acre with the One Acre Fund program, and hopes to increase her loan size again next year. Linley is a very happy woman now. “As long as One Acre Fund is here to assist me with my farming, I will always be wearing a smile,” Linley says.
Meet Hanko Libanga
Hanko Libanga lives in Bongwe Village in Malawi. He is a father to two daughters and has two grandchildren who he also cares for. Though he is 80 years old, Hanko is still farming. He farms year round, as he always has.
Hanko grows maize and pigeon peas, and occasionally tests out other crops, like sunflowers.
Though Hanko works hard, for most of his life he has struggled to find a sustainable source of food for himself and his grandchildren. He had two major problems. First, for much of his life he couldn’t access critical services like improved seeds, quality fertilizer and agricultural trainings. Second, even when he could access them, he often couldn’t afford them. With low yields year after year, Hanko was unable to feed himself and his family.
Hanko first heard about One Acre Fund from a field officer who was doing community outreach. He was quite taken with One Acre Fund’s program model and felt it might help him overcome the hurdles he had been facing.
Hanko enrolled a quarter-acre of his land in his first year of joining One Acre Fund. To his delight, he managed to harvest nine bags maize, which was larger than any of his previous harvests.
Buoyed by his strong harvest from last season, Hanko increased his loan to cover a half-acre of land. “I can now happily take care of my grandchildren with all the maize I am harvesting these days, and with the money I am saving with One Acre Fund!” Hanko says.
One Acre Fund's pilot in Malawi is growing because we've learned from past experience. Read about our unsuccessful pilot in Ghana to find out what we learned about new country expansion efforts.
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