Green Revolution in Africa, opinions NY Times 2015

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Courtesy of DBornstein

New York Times

The "Green Revolution" in Africa


In the summer of 2005, Andrew Youn, an M.B.A. student at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, was traveling in western Kenya when he met two women, farmers who were living profoundly different lives.

Both were working small plots of land, but one was producing a yield of two tons of maize per acre — better than Kenya’s national average — while the other was producing one quarter that amount.

The difference meant the world. One family had enough to eat during the “hunger season” — the months before the late-summer harvest. The other didn’t. One family had decent housing and clothing and the children were healthy. The second family was living a meager existence, Youn recalled. “She had lost a child and it was unlikely that her four remaining children would be able to complete high school.”

The difference? One woman was doing what many farmers around the world had been doing since the Green Revolution began in the 1960s — using improved hybrid crop varieties and fertilizer and incorporating planting techniques proven to boost food production. As Tina Rosenberg has reported, the Green Revolution transformed agricultural practices across Asia and Latin America — doubling world food production from 1960 to 1990 and saving countless lives — but, for a variety of reasons, it has not yet taken hold across Africa. Among the billion people today who are living in extreme poverty — subsisting on less than $1.25 a day — one-fourth are smallholder farmers in Africa.

“In the fight against global poverty, there are very few hugely powerful leverage points,” says Youn. “The majority of the world’s poor people are farmers; they share one profession, and we figured out how to make that profession way more productive 50 years ago. There is a common solution that could substantially improve their productivity.”

Since his visit to Kenya, Youn has been obsessed with making that solution widely available in Africa. In 2006, he co-founded a nonprofit organization, One Acre Fund [1] , with offices around East Africa, to assist smallholder farmers; today, the organization has a staff of 2,500 who deliver farming inputs, training and market assistance to 280,000 families in rural Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, with a plan to be serving a million families by 2020.

This work is part of a historic shift. “The African Green Revolution is emerging,” said Pedro Sanchez, director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center [2] at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. [3] “In the last 10 years, yields of cereal grains like maize have increased by about 50 percent from 1 to 1.5 tons per hectare, but they’re still pretty miserable.” (In Asia and Latin America, yields are 3 tons per hectare.) “But it will happen,” Sanchez adds. “Many African countries are serious about this. The main barrier has been access to improved varieties of crops and fertilizers.”

Sanchez points to promising signs, including the spread across Africa of companies that specialize in improving seed varieties, joint efforts by governments and fertilizer manufacturers to reduce costs, fertilizer subsidies (notably in Malawi) and government loan programs, and the emergence of agro-dealers, mom-and-pop shops that sell agricultural supplies. “We have helped set up 25,000 agro-dealerships in 13 countries,” said Agnes Kalibata, a former minister of agriculture and animal resources for Rwanda who is now president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or AGRA. “We need to create a value proposition around smallholder farmers for the private sector and the area that needs to be strengthened is the last mile solution. We need institutions like the One Acre Fund to reach farmers.”

In Africa, agriculture is different from what you’d find in Asia. Most farmers are women, who face greater barriers than men in accessing land, finance and technology. Africa’s soils are more degraded, requiring more careful management. Africa’s population, already suffering from high malnutrition, is expected to double by 2050. African farmers will need greater access to drought-tolerant crops to contend with climate changes. And, of course, we know far more today than in the 1960s about the environmental costs of intensive farming with nonorganic chemicals.

In theory, as smallholder farmers increase productivity, demand for quality farm inputs should increase and markets should emerge to serve the need. One Acre Fund reports that the families it served in 2014 experienced average income gains for the activities it supports ranging from 25 to 99 percent. In Kenya, the gain translated to an additional $170 per year, which families typically used to pay school fees, buy food and make new business investments. In 2013, One Acre Fund began a major effort to overhaul its monitoring work so it would have a clear understanding of its impact.

This is important because business people need solid data to justify investments in new markets, and policy makers and philanthropists need to know what works to alleviate hunger. It’s also important to have organizations like One Acre Fund that work to develop new markets before they are widely seen as viable. They help figure out the delivery systems, show how to aggregate small-scale producers, and demonstrate demand. In the field of microfinance, social-purpose organizations like the Grameen Bank and Accion International spent decades demonstrating the viability of banking with the poor; they worked with foundations, governments, nongovernmental organizations and businesses that now provide access to credit to 200 million people.

Groups like One Acre Fund play a similar role today. The organization is particularly well designed to partner with private and public sector organizations to stimulate an African Green Revolution friendly to smallholder farmers.

“They’re solving a really hard problem,” said Marshall Burke, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University [4]. “There are millions of smallholder farmers spread out across Africa, with very poor infrastructure in areas where markets don’t function very well, and they’re providing them with timely and regular access to high quality inputs.”

In addition to distributing inputs, One Acre Fund provides credit to purchase them, along with bi-weekly trainings, so that farmers can learn how to maximize their productivity. “The question of how to use the right fertilizer and apply it in the right amounts and at the right times is very important,” said Sanchez. “Many small farmers used to use fertilizer 20 or 30 years ago before the Washington Consensus in the 1980s took away subsidies. Farmers have forgotten that.”

One Acre Fund systematically tries to assess its own effectiveness. “I think one of their defining features is they’re very scientifically inclined,” said Christopher Barrett, a professor of applied economics and agriculture at Cornell University. “It’s incredibly complicated to determine which of the 15 to 20 things is most immediately restrictive” to farmers, he said. “The only way to find that out is to continuously talk with them and to continuously evaluate the work as you go on.”

Continuous experimentation leads to important insights. For instance, the One Acre Fund promotes “micro-dosing” of fertilizer. It turns out it’s helpful to provide farmers with something as simple as a customized scoop to help them deliver the right amount to supply nutrients while minimizing the risks of soil or environmental degradation.

Similarly, the organization finds it crucial to regularly remind farmers about the importance of weeding, plant spacing, composting, crop rotation and proper drying. “It’s not always obvious why you get good harvests,” said Youn. “There’s a lot of boring details that we have a passion for.”

Much of the work is about reducing risk. One Acre Fund sells food-safe insecticide dust and sealed bags to reduce spoilage, solar lamps to reduce the need to burn kerosene (a major health hazard) and crop insurance against excess rain or drought. “We are now the largest retailer of crop insurance to smallholder farmers in Africa,” said Youn. “We work with farmers across enough rainfall zones that we have payouts every year.”

All of the work hinges on quality training. One Acre Fund field officers are usually farmers themselves, and are each responsible for training 200 others. Meetings are held at the farms of volunteer group leaders. “The most important thing in a training is that each and every person participates,” said Oliver Simiyu, One Acre Fund’s field director for the Kimilili district, in western Kenya. He oversees services to 7,200 farmers. “When I was a field officer, I was only to be contributing 20 percent of the content of the training,” he said. “The rest should be feedback, role play, giving kudos to those who have done well, sharing ideas for upward feedback, quizzing for understanding, so we know where to repeat or not.”

A lot of the staff members’ commitment to the work appears to stem from their own experiences. Pauline Wanjala, a senior field director who oversees One Acre Fund’s work serving 18,000 farmers in the Lugari and Kimilili districts in western Kenya, said: “I used to farm maize on half an acre of land and the most I could get was three bags. After my first season, I harvested 12 bags.” (Each bag could hold 90 kilograms). She used the profits to expand her house from two to six rooms. She now supports her three children, as well as two brothers and her mother. “If it were not for One Acre Fund, my children might not be in school,” she said.

“These farmers are not like U.S. farmers,” said Barrett, from Cornell. “Their own health and the health of their families is closely bound up with their agricultural production.” Low productivity creates a trap. It’s during the seasons of greatest rainfall that people need to work hardest on their farms, noted Barrett. But that’s also when diseases spike and people are insufficiently nourished. Without a surplus, farmers and their families are highly vulnerable. A one-time health shock can send a family cascading into deep poverty, as Anirudh Krishna illustrates in his book, “One Illness Away.”

Another problem farmers face is selling low and buying high. When farmers are strapped for cash, they often have to sell their crops immediately after harvest, when prices are lowest, and buy food later in the year when prices have risen. Marshall Burke, from Stanford, is experimenting with assistance from the One Acre Fund to establish whether well-timed microloans can help smallholder farmers increase profits by letting them sell at more favorable times. During the first year, the loans produced a 20 percent return on investment, said Burke, and preliminary second-year results appear even more promising. If this project proves profitable for farmers, One Acre Fund is in a position to rapidly scale it up.

“We have this amazing fact where most of the world’s poor people are farmers and they have this basic food production system in their back yard,” said Youn. “The agricultural innovations were invented decades ago. What we need is to distribute them in a form that is useful to people. Right now, the biggest challenge for us is how insignificant our scale is. Fifty million farm families in Africa could benefit.”

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David Bornstein is the author of “How to Change the World,” which has been published in 20 languages, and “The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank,” and is co-author of “Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know.” He is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

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Susan Anderson

Unfortunately, the good parts of the green revolution, so ably described by the author, have been having some unintended consequences. First, there's nitrogen runoff that is poisoning our water.

Then there's the "world domination" profiteering by Monsanto, who started out as good guys but are possessive about obligating people to buy their seeds rather than keeping and using the fruit in the time honored way. Then there's the tendency toward factory farming (not these wonderful women, I hasten to add) and use of industrial materials such as plastics that continue to race to the bottom on pollution.

Other efforts have shown that careful husbandry and older drought- and flood-resistant varieties of seeds and care for the earth can be quite helpful.

Certainly, we don't want the water poisoned. Earth-wide, that's what we're pushing for.

Many years ago, I hungrily read the great book "How To Change the World" which induced tears of sympathy and hopefulness in me. But I've learned since then that top-down efforts are not always helpful. CARE has long promoted helping people help themselves, and I believe this is the intention here. But watch out for unintended consequences of changing the environment without attention to the whole ecology.

Wangara Maathai is one hero. Here's another, "Greening the Desert":

Unfortunately, industrial farming came in and destroyed the successful effort in the end.


Agribusiness wins again!. They really cannot lose with their improved seeds. The farmers that buy into GMO unmistakably have better yields for the present. That induces more farmers to go GMO, increasing the need for more GMO seeds until Agribusiness becomes monopolistic through legal ownership of their manufactured seeds and can control future prices. Affordability becomes a major issue for small farmers, as happened in India and elsewhere. Ipso facto, another major industry gains control of much of the world's production of food in a situation where only corporate farming on a big scale can survive.

Jeffrey Ashe

David, Thank you for this insightful article on the One Acre Fund. After reading the comments I would like to add to the discussion. First of all there is the risk of taking out a loan and paying for it after the harvest inherent in the One Acre model. A spin off of One Acre Fund, MyAgro deals with this issue by having the farmers pre-purchase their inputs in small amounts after the harvest and when they have extra cash during the year so they are free of debt. Several commented on the issue of soil fertility. With the rapid increase in population soil fertility is collapsing. Recognizing that chemical fertilizers are not a long-term solution and agriculture for the poorest living in remote villages is a matter of subsistence not selling in the market, Groundswell International introduced short season cowpeas and Gliricidia trees to build soil fertility and open up channels so rainwater could penetrate the soil. It takes six years to rebuild fertility so this approach requires patience. See David Bornstein's piece on Savings Groups in his Fixes Column of November 27. Also see and my book "In Their Own Hands: How Savings Groups are Revolutionizing Development."

Noel Deering

Improved seeds are important, indeed, but you don't need millions of R&D dollars to obtain them. Mark Shepard has reminded us how it used to be done. Restoration Agriculture is what the world needs, not expensive inputs.


The important thing is better seeds, composting and other soil building and preservation techniques, etc. keep the Monsanto type of GMO seeds out or the farmers will go broke due to Big Ag firm's greedy licensing and patenting requirements.

I surely applaud the care in fertilizer measuring and the other things, financial and agricultural, that help African farmers reach better, more self sufficient lives. Help the people and their families, and help reclaim and rebuild the soil.

Patented and pesticide infested seeds won't do that!


What vapid "journalism". First, "micro-finance" is in itself not viable; it needs subsidies. And it is certainly not a stepping-stone to a proper farm-finance system of the sort that will help small-holders in the short and medium terms and boost rural economies in the long term. Second, you could read this and think that some young MBA had "discovered" the problems that researchers at centers like IITA in Ibadan, Nigeria, have been working on for decades. Again, not a serious article.


Seconded. Another case of entitled westerners to the rescue, using the best science and data of the day to save the world from itself.

We'd be better off parachuting several million copies of Sir Albert Howard's "An Agricultural Testament" all over the continent. By entrenching farmers in practices involving outsourced fertilizer, you ultimately create an inherently non-self-sufficient and unsustainable system. Sure, there might be food and money now, but what about for the next generation, and the generations to come? This solution strikes me as putting fresh newspaper on top of the old newspaper the dog has already soiled.


The article mentions great ideas but few specifics. For instance, cereal grains such as maize are grown for income, but no mention is made of other vegetables to nourish the african farmer, towns people, or soil. What are the hybrid vegetables?

What do the "inputs" consist of? Are they manmade chemicals or naturally occurring pest repellants? What is in the "safe" insecticide dust? and why would it not adversely effect pollinators and produce handlers?

Can these small farmers reuse seed and build compost to enrich their soil?

Is the poor quality of the soil a result of previous GMO practices?

What policies are being adopted to deal with the lack of water?