watering crops

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.