How Agriculture Ends Poverty: 
3 Discoveries About What Works

by Roxanne Addink DeGraaf

Growing up in Iowa, the agricultural heartland of the United States, I was surrounded by farms. I remember childhood summers milking cows and “walking beans” (walking between rows of soybeans to pick weeds) on my grandparent’s farm. I saw how the farm put food on the table, as I always enjoyed a cold glass of milk from the dairy after chores.

After college, I began to understand agriculture from the perspective of small-scale farmers in Kenya. I worked for two years alongside women who spent long days in their fields to not only put food on the table, but also to earn an income for their families. Everything from buying school uniforms to medical services relied on their farm’s output.

And this is not unique to Kenya. Traveling the globe with Partners Worldwide, I’ve continued to witness the centrality of agriculture in many countries and communities where we work, from subsistence farmers to thriving cooperatives.

Agriculture: A Primary Occupation of the Poor

While employment in agriculture is declining overall, agriculture is still the primary occupation for one in three people in the world (FAO). For people living in poverty, 70% live in rural areas and the majority are involved in agriculture (World Bank/Gates Foundation).

At Partners Worldwide, these facts are shaping how we work towards our vision to end poverty through business so that all may have abundant life.

We recently launched a pilot initiative focused on supporting and leveraging the resources of our partners in Africa who were already serving the agricultural sector. This pilot has been our learning lab. We’ve had some failed experiments, while other interventions have led to powerfully positive outcomes. Overall, the results affirm the vital role that agriculture plays in ending poverty.

Here are three stories, that illustrate three discoveries we made about what works in investing in agriculture to end poverty:
1. It’s Business
Liberian farmers rise amidst the Ebola crisis

During the Ebola crisis, Liberia’s borders were closed, cutting off the country’s access to vital resources like rice—the staple of the Liberian diet. In response, LEAD, a faith-based Liberian business training and lending institution, invested in thousands of small-scale farmers across the country. Specifically, they bolstered their investment in the rice sector by making sure rice farmers had the inputs and support they needed to increase yields.

The investment paid off, with a significant harvest that helped feed the nation during this tumultuous time. The harvest brought good prices to the farmers (in part, thanks to the World Food Program’s purchases during the crisis), resulting in a 100% repayment rate by the farmers on their loans from LEAD. Since the Ebola crisis, these farmers have continued to grow their farms and outputs—lifting their families out of poverty and feeding their communities.

Business is a powerful tool to meet basic human needs and impact communities. Even in the midst of a crises, agribusiness solutions can alleviate poverty when they are linked with viable and profitable markets.

2. It Takes Persistence
Productive oxen, failed soybeans, and thriving sunflowers in post-war Uganda

Talanta Finance was founded by entrepreneur Timothy Jokkene, who had faith in the talents God had given the people in his community of Gulu, in Northern Uganda.

Gulu was caught in the center of Northern Uganda’s devastating 20-year civil war. People were displaced, lives were lost, and families were separated. Farmers, too, were forced to leave their land. In the aftermath of the war, many farmers longed to return and continue farming.

By offering a unique loan product of two oxen and a plow, Talanta equipped hundreds of farmers and their families to make a living off their land again.

The results? A decade after the war ended, nearly 100% of the displaced farmers participating in the oxen loan program reported being food secure and able to send all of their school-age children to school. But one of my favorite pieces of feedback was from a young farmer who remarked, after a high yield that season, “Now I finally have enough money for a dowry for my wife!”

On the momentum of this success, Talanta Finance launched a program with 100 farmers to help them grow and market soybeans, a product in high demand. However, poor rainfall and the challenges of new market relationships led to a very poor harvest and little profit. The Talanta Finance team reflected on the results to learn from their mistakes, and tweaked the program accordingly.

This time around, they added sunflowers to the mix, another high-demand product. This past season, the soybean production rose and the profits from both the soybeans and the sunflowers amazed even the farmers—with some farmers moving from lean subsistence to ten-fold profits in one season.

Ending poverty is not a quick process. Ending poverty through agriculture isn’t a quick fix, either.

Success often comes from patient investments in people and businesses, with room to fail and learn. Impact comes when leaders have persistent faith in the creativity of their neighbors and hold God’s long-term vision of a world restored.

3. Locally Rooted
Uplifting Swaziland’s vulnerable through poultry and honey, a locally-rooted initiative led by innovative, compassionate leaders

Tinashe Chitambira is the strategic mind behind a successful poultry value-chain model that links some of the most vulnerable women in Southern Africa to viable, profitable markets.

When we first met, Tinashe was working in Mozambique and told me, “It has taken us five years of trial and error to get this model right, but now it is having the impact we desire.” Women who had been scraping together a living farming dry land with little rainfall now have successful poultry production businesses. Living in areas with some of the highest HIV-AIDS rates in the world, where children are often orphaned, these women now earn enough income to support their children, grandchildren, and at times, orphans and other children in need. Additionally, they used their profits to upgrade from mud-stick to brick houses.

Their success allows the women to look to the future; as one participant shared, “I am now dreaming of buying and driving a car.”

Tinashe, then working for AfricaWorks, a partner organization of Partners Worldwide, launched this successful poultry model next in Swaziland. There the application of the model again had ups and downs, with challenges on the marketing end. So, the AfricaWorks team recently introduced another product for the vulnerable women they serve: beehives.Through beehives, the women were incorporated into a honey value-chain, linking them to an established honey retailer in Swaziland. Resilient impact requires innovation!

Local business leaders and faith-based institutions, like Tinashe and AfricaWorks, bring an essential perspective. They are uniquely equipped to lead and find viable, creative solutions that uplift the rural poor in their own communities.


At the heart of every of story I’ve shared are people answering God’s call to be faithful and innovative actors in His unfolding story of redemption. They have chosen agriculture as their path, and are using it to end poverty for themselves and their communities.

I’ve surprisingly found myself back on this agricultural path, walking between the rows of beans with farmers from around the globe. What strikes me is that even these small-scale farmers share the vision to utilize agriculture to end poverty—starting with their own families.

Globally, there is a growing community of leaders who see the potential, and the urgent need, to focus on agriculture in order to help end poverty. Ending poverty for good may seem unattainable. But, If we remain open to learn from our failure as well as our success, share our insights and discoveries with one another, and work in faithful partnership together—the impossible becomes possible.

Roxanne Addink de Graaf photo small copyRoxanne Addink de Graaf is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Partners Worldwide, following a calling to catalyze business for a world without poverty.  Roxanne also occasionally steps in as an adjunct professor at Eastern University’s MBA program and served as an editor for the BAM Think Tank paper on “BAM at the Base of the Pyramid.” On the home front, she is blessed with a creative, fun-filled life with her husband and four daughters in Grand Rapids, MI.

Find our more about the work of Partners Worldwide.


Read more about how agriculture and business as mission intersect in our Agriculture Industry series.



Cashews with a Social Mission: From Hershey Exec to Sunshine Nuts

From Forbes Magazine

Do you have to be a little nuts to give up all the trappings of corporate success, move your family to Mozambique to start a cashew company and pledge to give away 90% of your profits to help orphans and farmers?

More than a few people suggested as much to Don Larson, a former Hershey Company exec who  sold his Porshe, his hot air balloon and his house with a swimming pool to buy a small factory in Matola, Mozambique to launch his social enterprise.

Larson’s Sunshine Nut Company, sells roasted cashews,  grown by small farmers in Mozambique and produced entirely in-country.  The company, which turned its first profit 18 months ago, sold about $2 million worth of cashews last year, and  Larson is projecting $3 million to $5 million in revenue this year.  The nuts can now be found in  some 2,000 U.S. stores,  including Whole Foods and Wegman’s.

More than 30 years ago, Mozambique led the world in cashew production. But, following independence in 1975, 16  years of civil war and bad banking policies decimated the industry. Now, Larson is trying to bring it back – this time, by empowering local communities, paying farmers fairly for their product and creating   jobs with upward mobility for the country’s orphans and abandoned children in Sunshine’s factories. The company is devoting 30% of its net proceeds to support agricultural development and 30% to care for orphans and vulnerable children; another 30% will be directed to expanding to other developing regions, and, eventually, to other crops.

Most social entrepreneurs like to stress their founding story, the goals they hope to accomplish, the motivations that drive everything they do. The product itself? Sometimes, it’s just good enough, but nothing special. The really savvy social entrepreneurs have learned that a sincere mission and a superior product must go hand-in-hand.  Read more

Poultry Farmer to BAM Mentor: Interview with an Agriculture Veteran

Dan Wiebe grew up in a farming family and started his own poultry business in 1970. With decades of experience behind him, he has more recently connected with the business as mission community and become a mentor to others. We asked him to share a little about his story and some of his advice for those doing BAM in the agriculture sector.

Dan, could you share a bit about your own experience in the agriculture sector, about your own background and how your family business grew?

I grew up in a family agri-business as the youngest of 7 children. My father, a second generation Canadian, had taken Teachers Training in the 1920s and by 1940 retired from teaching to manage his farm in the prairies of Manitoba, Canada. In 1949 he moved our family to western Canada to begin intensive farming with poultry.

By 1970 I was ready to begin my own poultry operation with one chicken house and 10,000 chickens. This was a time when poultry became the consumer’s more popular choice over beef.  Not only was the market expanding rapidly because chicken was a healthy alternative to red meat, but the cost of producing chicken dropped significantly as scientific improvements were introduced in nutrition and selective breeding to bring chickens to market much faster. The use of hormones in chicken production has never been legal in North America so chicken is still the safest and healthiest meat available to consumers.

I grew up observing in our own family business ways to involve all segments of a farming enterprise with the support industry in order to produce a better quality and more efficient end product. I used these lessons to integrate my own farming operation into the only fully vertically integrated chicken farm in Canada, from farm to plate.  Read more

7 Practitioners Give Start Up Advice for BAM in the Agriculture Industry

In the first half of 2017, we are looking at BAM companies in different industries. We are currently focused on business as mission in the agriculture industry, sharing insights and stories from experienced company owners.

We asked BAMers involved in agriculture:

What advice would you give to someone starting out BAM and wanting to run an agriculture business?

The best advice is always to start small. It is easy to scale up as you gain understanding.  The greatest cause of failure in the industry is getting bigger than you can handle and overextended financially. All of this can be avoided by being realistic in your expectations from the beginning. It is always better to do a small thing well and scale up as time, energy and finances allow. We must remember that agriculture involves a great deal of waiting and trusting God to bring the growth. It often involves much experimentation to get the right things growing in the right place at the right time. Don’t ever trust that there is a “one style fits all” approach. Every place and every situation will bring its own challenges and its own victories. Remember, our God is a God of abundance and if we do things in His way, He will provide the increase. It is important to get a team involved and a good business plan in place. Even on a small scale, we must concentrate on the business side of things. If we don’t, we may end up with a big pile of cucumbers rotting in the yard. – Carl, Caribbean & Asia  Read more

What are the Advantages of Doing BAM in the Agriculture Industry?

In the first half of 2017, we are looking at BAM companies in different industries. We continue with business as mission in the agriculture industry, sharing insights and stories from experienced company owners.

We asked BAMers involved in agriculture:

What are the advantages of being in the agriculture industry when it comes to doing BAM?

I see three advantages of being in the agricultural industry when it comes to doing BAM. First of all, everybody in the world needs food to eat. Food comes from agriculture. So if somebody has know-how in food production and food preservation it is the best industry for business. Second, it is easy to start in the agricultural industry. In every location there is already existing agricultural activity. No or only few imports are needed. Finally, it is easy to connect to people on the level of food because everybody relates to it. – Decent, Malawi

I think there is a big advantage in that with agriculture most of the grassroots people in your area can relate to you. They can see what you are doing and how it can have direct benefits to them. They can also get involved by utilizing your products on their farm, or learning and implementing what you are introducing, if it is new technology or improved methods. This can impact a huge number of people right there where you are. The people receiving those benefits are those who are working hard to legitimately provide a life and future for their families. If you impact them, and help them, you provide hope. Just like the hope and dignity you give to your employees, this can be multiplied out to the recipients of your product or technology, allowing them to better provide for their families. – Ben, Central Asia  Read more