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.



When Helping Hurts: Book Review

when helping hurtsWhen Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert is a comprehensive guide on effective approaches to missions and poverty alleviation. It is a must read for present and future missionaries and BAM practitioners hoping to fight poverty. Corbett and Fikkert are both part of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College, USA. Corbett is an Assistant Professor of Community Development at Covenant College, and has worked for Food for the Hungry International as Regional Director for Central and South America. Fikkert is the founder and president of Chalmers Center for Economic Development, and is a professor of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College. 

When Helping Hurts provides practical strategies and systems that will change the way Christians approach working with the poor. Many have agreed that traditional approaches to poverty alleviation have had a negative long-term impact on the poor. Corbett and Fikkert test this theory, address the issues, dissect them and provide solutions.

Read more

Stop Helping Us! Moving Beyond Charity to Job Creation

by Peter Greer

Excerpts from eBook ‘Stop Helping Us!’ reproduced with kind permission from the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics and Peter Greer. Buy eBook.

Stop Helping Us! introduces a new paradigm for an evangelical response to poverty alleviation. Being effective means recognizing that there is a difference between short-term aid, which is important and necessary, and the long-term elimination of poverty, which is the best defense against receding back into material poverty and the most effective method of elevating the dignity of all God’s children. We will see the stories of those who were transformed by effective, long-term aid that focused on the individuals rather than just numbers. Included are surveys of the poor and what they desire, showing that their goals have little to do with money and everything to do with using their skills, caring for their families, and embracing their God-given dignity.

The Story of Fadzai

Every time an employer discovered Fadzai Nhamo, a woman from Zimbabwe, was HIV positive, the door shut. “Life was difficult for me when I came to Harare,” Fadzai later remarked. When Fadzai speaks, she covers her mouth to hide her missing front teeth, a daily reminder of the brutal way she contracted HIV. “I left my hometown after someone had beaten and raped me,” she said. Following the assault, a friend took her to a clinic at the capital, Harare. There she discovered she was HIV positive. “When my husband found out I was sick [with HIV], he disappeared,” Fadzai commented later. “I did not have a place to live.” After her husband’s abandonment, Fadzai was left a single mom, a stranger in a new city. With no place to call home, she moved from place to place with her children.

It is possible to debate many points of theology, but our faith clearly calls us to care for Fadzai, an individual who has been exploited and abused. She is the widow and foreigner so frequently mentioned throughout Scripture. When we hear the story of Fadzai’s mistreatment and understand the message of grace in Scripture, we are compelled to respond. Read more

Lessons from the Edge: Fighting Poverty Through Business

Insights from a BAM Practitioner

Brian Albright has been involved in international development and business (in agriculture and health care) in East Africa since 2004. He currently teaches Business as Mission and Social Entrepreneurship at Hope International University in Fullerton, California, USA.

Invest in your key relationships and stay teachable
I’ve been blessed to partner with two amazingly gifted Kenyans to run our companies. They have strengths and weaknesses—as I do—that must be understood and managed. The cultural differences are real, and I could share many stories where my presence, perspective, and opinion were detrimental, and I learned to stay teachable. I know the most valuable investment we have made in our long-term business success is the time we have taken to build trust, communication, and a more open relationship. If I were to start over new in another location, the first thing I would do would be to find the right partner and develop that kind of relationship.

Monitor the numbers regularly
In the context we work in, there is a strong donor mentality due to a long history of handouts. With some of our employees and clients, it is hard to make the switch in mindset to running a business that is sustainable, where “finding a donor” isn’t the proper response to financial problems. The way we avoid this mentality is to set specific quantitative goals and monitor costs, revenues, client totals, labor hours, profitability, etc. on a regular basis. This focus on the numbers reminds us that we are a business.

You can’t do it all, work with others
While working alongside the poor, many issues emerge such as AIDS, alcoholism, nominal Christianity, sexual promiscuity, children’s school fees, costs of health care, etc.. Our business exists to meet these social and spiritual needs, but our primary role as a business is to provide goods and services and to create jobs. There are churches, health clinics, and NGO’s that we partner with in our community so that our company isn’t all things to all people. While our goals are beyond that of a traditional business, we are not experts in all of these areas, nor should we try to be. I think we are better at accomplishing all of our goals because we partner in this way.

Business as Mission and the End of Poverty

Adapted and excerpted from the BAM Global Think Tank report on BAM at the Base of the Pyramid.

The Call to Poverty Alleviation Through Business

Business has a role in alleviating poverty. Christians in business have a unique opportunity, and responsibility, to address the suffering and injustice of the 2.5 billion people who live on less than US$2.50 per day. 

The call to bring poverty-alleviation back as a central focus and purpose of business as mission (BAM) is built on several foundational understandings:

1. We are all created in God’s image: equal, creative, and imaging God in our work

Every person on this Earth is created in God’s image, from those our world defines as the most humble to the greatest, we are equals. This foundational Christian understanding of who we are has profound implications for our understanding of work, of business, and unemployment. Timothy Keller in his new book, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting your Work to God’s Work, provides a fresh perspective on work, starting with Genesis and God’s work in Creation, to Christ’s humble role as a carpenter, and each of our own unique vocational callings in this world. On the definition of calling in his book, Keller states, “Our daily work can be a calling only if it is reconceived as God’s assignment to serve others.” (Keller, 2012 p66) Read more

Poverty, Inc.

As we introduce this new series on ‘Business Fights Poverty’ on The BAM Review blog, we want to recommend the documentary Poverty, Inc. as a great resource to understand more about this issue. We believe enterprise is the way God designed communities to rise out of poverty and develop. Business is integral to human flourishing.

Yet business does not stand a chance in many communities because of a dependence on aid. The unintended consequence of good intentions can often be the destruction of the local economy.

Aid versus trade is just one of the issues around the topic of ‘business fights poverty’. Through this theme we want to be thinking holistically about addressing physical, social and spiritual poverty. We want to grow in a Biblical view of what human flourishing means. Read more

How Business Fights Poverty: Stories from a Global Network

by Lauren Rahman

Business is uniquely positioned to respond to the needs of this world.  The Partners Worldwide global network works every day to leverage this truth for change. We recognize that business is a calling to do God’s work by creating flourishing economic environments in all parts of the world.

In places where poverty devastates communities and robs individuals of their ability to realize their full, God-given potential, we work to catalyze entrepreneurs and job-creators. Through business, these local leaders are fighting poverty and the various effects poverty has on communities and individuals—physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and environmental.

determiner bfp

The most obvious form of poverty we encounter is physical poverty—a lack of material things that contribute to our well-being—shelter, food, clothing, medicine. Business gives families access to these things, both through income from jobs and by providing the goods and services needed to flourish. Read more

Ask a BAM Mentor: Hiring Dilemmas

Once a month, our panel of mentors answer your practical business questions. Send us your questions!


Dear BAM Mentor,

One of the purposes of my business is to create jobs in an area where there is a lot of need. I am feeling the tension between hiring more people who are particularly vulnerable and desperately in need of a job versus hiring people with more skills. Have you got any advice as I try balance making good business decisions alongside fulfilling this core mission of the company?

Hopeful Hirer

Dear Hopeful,

This is a very common concern in our community, so thanks for asking! BAM has great potential in poverty relief, but most of us don’t get there, largely because we fail to ask this sort of question at the beginning.

I would start by changing the challenge from finding the right balance to managing the tension. That’s a healthier way to look at this and a lot of issues. On one side of the tension is the pressure to hire lots of people who are unemployed, many of whom likely lack skills and have a less than optimal work ethic. On the other side of the tension is the need to keep the business alive. If the business fails you won’t be able to hire or help anyone. Look at profitability as a necessary precondition for fulfilling your objective and hiring and training the vulnerable and desperately in need. Profit is like oxygen. No one worries about breathing unless it’s a problem, and then it becomes their entire focus. So make sure you structure and grow your staff so that the business has enough profit so that you are able to give to and equip the vulnerable and needy. Read more