Microlending was thrust into the public consciousness in 2006 when Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank won the Nobel Peace Prize. Yunus came up with the idea to give loans to the desperately poor in Bangladesh — on their own terms, no collateral required – giving them the tools to pull themselves out of poverty and become productive members of society. Most of Grameen’s borrowers are women, not surprising, considering that most of the world’s poor are – you guessed it – women. A full 98% of the loans are paid back according to Grameen, a higher recovery than any other banking system.
2006 was a big year for microfinance. At that time, a continent away, Andrew Youn, a Yale graduate and newly minted MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, took Yunus’ concept one step further. Youn’s One Acre Fund – which operates today in western Kenya and southwest Rwanda – provides impoverished farm families, (not coincidentally they’re largely women farmers — who own about an acre of land each) — with tools, training, and perhaps most important, market access so that they can not only grow their own food, but turn a profit.
Youn started One Acre Fund when he was on a personal study tour of Africa. “After three days of talking to farmers in rural Kenya, I saw an incredibly vast opportunity to make a difference,” he told me in an email. “Two facts stuck out in my mind: 1) 75% of the worlds poor people are farmers. 2) We have the technology and knowledge to double the farm income of every one of those farmers,” he continued. Typically these farm families spend up to half of each year severely hungry.
Within three months of his tour, Youn moved to Kenya and geared up a pilot project with 40 farmers. “When I started, I did not have a program model in mind. I simply listened to our clients,” he said. “Those clients told me they wanted to work together in groups. They needed seed and fertilizer, they wanted education, and they wanted access to harvest markets. My job was to try to figure out how to deliver this cost-effectively, so that our clients could succeed.”
Youn, who had worked for a Fortune 500 company before launching the non-profit One Acre Fund, put on his management consultant hat and used his business training to get to work. He figured that most of the farmers he was meeting were growing only 20% of the food their land could produce. How to change that? Not only does One Acre Fund provide the tools, including seeds, fertilizers, and irrigation technology, local field officers trained by experts, they also share best farming practices each week in community meetings. The field officers then collect, grade, and deliver the surplus staples to market. Youn says selling in bulk more than doubles the return for farmers. Finally, the farmers repay the micro-investment with cash before harvest or a percentage of crops at harvest time.
The results speak for themselves. In four short years, One Acre Fund has grown 300 fold to serve 12,000 farmers. The farmers’ annual farm income has more than doubled – from about $120 to more than $240. And more than 85% have repaid their program fees.
The key to One Acre Fund, much as for Partners in Health, which I profiled recently for Trailblazers, is that it is immersed in and understands the communities in which it works. And its model is so good that it can be extrapolated to much bigger things. Partners in Health, for example, has been so successful on the ground in Haiti and elsewhere treating drug resistant TB and AIDS, that it has become instrumental in modeling worldwide programs to combat those diseases.
For Andrew Youn, and his One Acre Fund, that means opening up the entire continent. By the end of this year his plans include doubling the farm income of 28,000 families. “The only permanent and lasting way to end African hunger is for African farmers to grow more food for themselves. We believe that a market model is the most effective way to permanently empower farmers and grow more food and income for their families. African farmers are some of the hardest working people on the planet — they are willing to pay service fees and work hard to secure their own future. They seize opportunity.”
One Acre Fund
Suzi Schiffer Parrasch