With similar interests, upbringings, and career paths, Andrew Youn and Matthew Forti immediately hit it off when they met in 2004 in the MBA program at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. They had no idea their friendship would one day be a vital ingredient in one of the most influential and impactful organizations to serve under-represented smallholder farmers in Africa.
That journey began when Youn took a side trip from South Africa to rural Kenya between his first and second year at Kellogg. In that East African country he met and befriended struggling and underserved smallholder farmers who each year experienced a “hunger season” in which they were unable to sustain themselves despite living on an acre of arable land. Youn spent days and nights interviewing the farmers and families. He blogged about them, often referring to the farmers and their children by name, forging a deep personal connection. Forti, from a distance, took note.
“This wasn’t something he was researching on the web,” Forti recalls of reading the blogs in 2005. “He was in Africa, he was meeting farmers and sleeping over in their houses at night. And he was really talking directly to those people who were really hard working.”
A DECADE OF REMARKABLE GROWTH
Youn, naturally, saw the farmers’ struggle as a business problem. Upon arrival to the Chicagoland campus, the former management consultant for Oliver Wyman began devising a solution. “When he came back to school, the dominoes started falling,” Forti remembers of his friend and colleague. Youn built a business plan, began applying to business school competitions, and garnered support from classmates. When graduation came around, Youn decided to make a “full-fledged go at this,” Forti says.
In February 2006, after moving to Kenya, Youn founded One Acre Fund, a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit serving about 38 families. Support, and success, quickly followed. That spring, One Acre Fund notched wins in the social enterprise track of Yale’s 50K Business Plan Competition and Stanford’s Social E-Challenge. In May, Youn was awarded an Echoing Green Fellowship, allowing him to pursue One Acre Fund full-time for two years. A slew of essential grants followed. First was $300,000 from the Draper Richards Foundation in 2007. After that was a $100,000 grant from Mulago Social Investments. From 2009 to 2010, the nonprofit received a total of $6.5 million courtesy of the Pershing Square Foundation. Articles and books were written and major foundations continued to jump on the One Acre Fund bandwagon.
More impressive than the support is what Youn and crew have produced with it. Despite a hitch in 2013 when reports revealed farmers abandoning One Acre Fund because of a decision to stop providing maize, growth has been remarkable. From 2014 to 2015, participating farmers surged from 203,600 to 305,000; the number is expected to grow to 420,000 by the end of this year. Meanwhile, the families’ yearly salaries jumped from $116 to $137, and full-time staff grew from 2,343 in 2014 to 4,300 in 2015. About 97% of One Acre Fund’s staff are from local communities and at field offices in the six countries where the nonprofit operates.
LEADING AN AFRICAN GREEN REVOLUTION
All the while, Forti had watched from arm’s length. An member of the One Acre Fund board, which he had joined when the nonprofit launched, he kept his day job as a manager at the Bridgespan Group.
Until, that is, he realized his near-decade-long relationship with One Acre Fund “had become a deep part of my being.” After often working nights and weekends to help the global team keep up with the immense growth taking place on the ground in Africa, in 2013 Forti joined the organization full-time as a managing director in its U.S. office. “It really felt like it had the potential to make a meaningful dent in this vast global problem,” Forti says.
Potential is the key word. When the Green Revolution swept across Asia and Latin America from the 1960s to the 1990s, introducing practices like diverse seed planting and fertilizer use, Africa was left behind. As The New York Times reported last year, of the world’s billion people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 per day), a quarter are smallholder farmers in Africa. What’s more, while African farmers yield about 1 to 1.5 tons per hectare in cereal grains, farmers in Asia and Latin America average about 3 tons.
‘THE SUCCESS OF OUR PROGRAM IS NOT BASED ON PH.D.S OR SCIENTISTS’
Forti predicts One Acre Fund this year will reach about 420,000 farmers in Africa — a very small dent in the 50 million farmers the nonprofit predicts to be in Africa. “That’s less than 1%,” Forti points out. “Our end goal is, no child of a farmer should go hungry.”
Considering its growth from 38 families to more than 400,000 in a decade, One Acre Fund seems to at least be on track. To be sure, scale was emphasized from the beginning. Youn and team built a “very highly systematized model that could be easily picked up and moved to a new village” from the get-go, Forti says. Obviously the massive market offers potential. Moreover, Forti says, there is a plentiful talent pool to help scale. “The success of our program is not based on Ph.D.s or scientists,” he says. “It’s based on farmers who we hire and train.” And while most organizations and governments work with farmers already established in a value chain, Forti says focus on the smallholder farmer is a cog in the wheel of scale. “We tend to work with a population that’s very, very underserved,” he says, “and this is like 93% of African farmers — these small, staple-crop farmers in rural Africa.”
One Acre Fund works in a model that supports farmers from input to output. First, farmers are loaned about $80 for seeds and fertilizer. Hired field staff officers then regularly meet with them to train on farming techniques. Field officers stick with the farmers throughout the process and help connect them with markets to sell their crop. Eventually, the field officers are also responsible for collecting repayment of the loan.
THE NEXT DECADE AND BEYOND
As One Acre Fund turns the page on a decade, some challenges persist. First is political insecurity. “Anything that makes it tough to operate in our areas is a risk to mitigate against,” Forti notes. While Tanzania, Malawi, and Uganda have relatively calm political waters now, the same cannot be said for Kenya, Rwanda, and especially Burundi, where Forti says this particular risk has manifested most. Another challenge is climate change. Forti believes building up drought-resistant seed varieties is key. One Acre Fund also provides crop insurance to help mitigate some of the threat.
As a nonprofit, Forti says, One Acre Fund naturally struggles to compete for top talent. “It’s a very fierce competition for talent,” he concedes. “As a nonprofit, we can’t pay as much as our for-profit peers.” Forti says One Acre Fund is always looking for talented graduate students looking to gain experience in international development. What they might lack in compensation, he says, they make up in “outstanding professional growth and career development.” Not to mention the warm feelings that go along with doing good for those who need it most.
Looking ahead to the next ten years, Forti says the nonprofit’s established relationships and emphasis on working closely with the populations it serves have been paramount in its growth. This will continue. “We made a decision very early on to base our leadership in the rural communities where we work,” says Forti, noting that he’s an exception. “It keeps us really close to the customer and gives us more insight into what can work and what can’t work than if we had a typical distance associated with our organization.”
In addition to building out their own model within the organization, they plan to promote it to governments and private industry. “We take what we’ve learned from our programs and try to change agriculture from the inside,” Forti says. “You could think of our core program as trying to disrupt from the inside — you know, brand new model, hasn’t been done before, we’re recruiting farmers for it — but most farmers are being supported from a fertilizer company or seed supplier or government training program. If we can help make those programs more effective, all of a sudden the 50 million number doesn’t seem so big.”