Ending Africa’s Hungry Season: How Family Farms Are Driving Development
Thursday, December 15, 2011
In rural sub-Saharan Africa, most people are farmers, and for part of the year, they go hungry.
It’s called the hungry season. I encountered it when I lived in a farming community in Malawi for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. Families in my village subsisted off of the maize and beans that they harvested, but there was only one growing season, and making stocks last an entire year was difficult. Imagine growing all of your family’s food for an entire year using just a hoe, seeds you saved from the year before, and a one acre plot of nutrient-depleted soil.
In 2005, a business student named Andrew Youn visited villages in western Kenya that undergo a hungry season. Youn had already graduated from Yale magna cum laude and he was about to earn his MBA. He met two farmers who were next-door neighbors in the village of Bungoma. “One was yielding two tons of food per acre and her family was thriving,” he says. “Her neighbor was yielding four times less, she had lost a child, and she was badly off. The only difference was seed, fertilizer, and training.”
Many people with good intentions waltz into Africa thinking they have a cure-all for complex problems, but Youn did not approach development with a smug attitude. He just had an idea he wanted to test: What happens when you provide a complete “bundle” of goods and services to struggling farmers, including improved seed, fertilizer, credit, training, and market facilitation? He decided to try it out, and founded the organization One Acre Fund. In 2006, the group’s first year of operation, Youn and his colleagues served 300 families. They’ve now reached 75,000 families in Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi, and have started a pilot program in Ghana, their “entry point into West Africa.”
Why the fast growth? One Acre Fund’s help can triple a farmer’s harvest from a half a ton of maize per acre to one and a half tons. The farmers must pay back their loan to One Acre, but even after doing so, they typically double their profits, an estimate director of policy and outreach Stephanie Hanson says is “quite conservative” because they base the estimate on the harvest price, the lowest price of the year. Each year, the One Acre Fund uses data from a randomized study of 2,500 farmers to measure impact. Funders like the Skoll Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship have spent hundreds of hours vetting their work as well.