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Small-scale farmers in Africa will be the beneficiaries of huge humanitarian prize

Africa is fed by smallholder farmers – farmers who tend small plots, typically an acre or less. They provide 70% to 80% of the continent's food. And yet, these small farms tend to be less productive and more labor-intensive than the bigger commercial growers. One Acre Fund, through a suite of services across nine African countries, is working to help small and subsistence farmers grow more food, make more money and reinvest in their communities. This year's Hilton Humanitarian Prize, one of the largest humanitarian awards in the world, has been awarded to OAF for its work with smallholder farmers.

The prize "highlights the vital role smallholder farmers have in addressing massive humanitarian challenges such as hunger and climate change," Peter Laugharn, president and CEO of the Hilton Foundation, said in announcing the award. "The organization has a proven and scalable model that has supported millions of farmers to grow more food and earn more money, with the potential of increasing the livelihood and prosperity of many more."

We caught up with OAF managing director Belinda Bwiza, who is based in Kigali, Rwanda. She explained how OAF lifts up farmers and their families and how the $2.5 million prize could help them reach even more people.

What kind of a living do these smallholder farmers typically make from their land?

Typically, they make about $200 of income a year.

And what difference does support from One Acre Fund make?

The way we measure our impact is that we measure the incremental profits that the farmer gains from joining One Acre Fund compared to a farmer with the same profile who's not a One Acre Fund farmer. Farms in the One Acre Fund program yield about 30% more harvest and the incremental profits ranged from an additional $100 to $120 per year.

What really guides our strategy is the farmer journey, and we define the farmer journey as from a place of food insecurity to a place of prosperity. Most farmers that we serve in Rwanda are in that category of self-sufficiency. Now a lot of the interventions that we're scaling up are to move the farmer to prosperity, and we define that based on what the farmers tell us what their aspirations are. Like any of us, they hope to be able to take their kids to school, to university, to be able to take their families to hospital when they're not well, to be able to grow their asset base and be financially independent.

How does helping smallholder farmers also help their communities, and help Africa more broadly?

Smallholder farmers have the most important jobs in our communities, and we should care about them for three reasons: One, they grow the food that all of us eat every day. A second reason is farmers are the majority of the workforce in our economy – in Rwanda, they make up more than 70%. And third, they are stewards of the land that our children will inherit. So it's very essential to ensure that all of the guidance and practices that we share with smallholder farmers improve the land and improve soil health for generations to come.

We see farmers being able to take their kids to school. We see farmers being able to acquire more and more land. And then we now are seeing farmers getting more and more into commercial products, like avocado as an example.

One Acre Fund provides seed and fertilizer on credit, training in good farming practices and support for getting produce to market. Could you give me an example of how those services have made a difference in the life of an individual farmer?

I'll share a quote from a conversation I had with a farmer from the eastern province of Rwanda called Emmanuel Nzabonimpa: "Since joining in 2018, my maize and potato harvest has increased massively. I used the revenues from the harvest sales to buy two plots of land and pay school fees for one of my kids. I hope to be able to buy an irrigation machine which will help me water my new plot located near a river. I would use that land to plant vegetables during the summer. I also hope to keep paying school fees for my young kids until they graduate high school."

Can you give an example of how training, knowledge and farming best practices can make a difference to a farmer's yield?

When a farmer's planting maize or beans in their fields, they can choose to "broadcast" the beans – [which means] kind of just throwing the beans around – and then put some fertilizer down. But that doesn't give them the most that it can for that piece of land, as it would if they plant in lines, with the recommended spacing between the crops. And we've really learned how to intercrop, as an example, between maize and beans or other crops that they have. It regenerates their soil, it increases their yield. We do invest in R&D to really understand, you know, what is the soil makeup, what crops would be good for the soil, what dosage of fertilizer would be appropriate for the crops. And so this is all of the knowledge that we share.

The Hilton Humanitarian Prize comes with $2.5 million. What difference will that money make?

That will go a long way in supporting these interventions. One Acre Fund is serving 1.6 million farmers across nine countries of operation. Our vision is to serve 10 million farmers in 2030. And so the resources that we get are really going to help us achieve this vision. Every dollar we invest yields more than five-plus dollars [in income for the farmer], and this prize also gives the whole world awareness about the importance of farming and smallholder farmers.

What draws you personally to this work? Why is it so important to you as an individual?

I think I found my purpose! So my background is finance and business, but when I moved back home – Rwanda is where my grandparents are from – I was really looking for more. And I just was very inspired by the country itself and the progress that we've made over the last few decades. So I was thinking, how can I be a part of this journey of transformation? And when I found One Acre Fund, agriculture being the biggest employer in the country, I thought this is really the best way you can make a good impact. One Acre Fund was doing that at scale, and also doing it sustainably. It wasn't just giveaways that are not sustainable. And just seeing this tangible impact over the years and seeing how farmers are progressing is what keeps me going.

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Gabriel Spitzer
Gabriel Spitzer (he/him) is Senior Editor of Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast. He comes to NPR following years of experience at Member stations – most recently at KNKX in Seattle, where he covered science and health and then co-founded and hosted the weekly show Sound Effect. That show told character-driven stories of the region's people. When the Pacific Northwest became the first place in the U.S. hit by COVID-19, the show switched gears and relaunched as Transmission, one of the country's first podcasts about the pandemic.