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A new report produced with support from the United States Agency for International Development, Smart Scaling for Social Change Organizations, looks at how One Acre Fund has maintained its expansion pace, the challenges it encountered, and criteria it sets for deciding how and where to grow. Sarah LaHaye, One Acre Fund’s business development director responsible for global government partnerships, recently had a discussion with Karlee Silver, the co-CEO of Grand Challenges Canada, about how nonprofits can achieve transformative impact through scale. Part of their conversation is below.
Karlee Silver: Serving 1 million farmers is an exciting milestone. What have been the key drivers of One Acre Fund’s growth, and what advice would you give to other nonprofits seeking to grow?
Sarah LaHaye: There are several lessons we’ve learned over the years, after getting a few things right and many things wrong. The first piece of advice we would give would be to consistently focus on your customer. One Acre Fund has the motto of “Farmers First” because we believe that farmers stand at the center of three of humanity’s greatest challenges: poverty, hunger, and the environment. We commit to putting farmers first in a number of ways. Nearly all of our staff, from leadership to front-line field officers, lives in rural areas where we interact with our customers daily. This gives us insight into what farmers value, and helps us tailor our services to meet their needs. When you provide products and services that your customers genuinely want, then demand increases naturally, helping facilitate program growth year after year.
Secondly, it is extremely important that scale-minded organizations invest in people. We not only want to hire the best team possible to serve our clients, but we also try to help our staff grow professionally and develop a strong sense of ownership over what they do, so that they continue to be inspired by their work and want to stay with us for the long term. Looking back, we made some early mistakes with our approach to hiring, particularly when it comes to diversity. Diverse teams make better decisions, and they create better end-outcomes for the people we serve. We are fully committed to developing the rising leaders in our ranks, and in the coming years we expect our senior leadership will better reflect the communities we serve.
Karlee Silver: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting One Acre Fund and its plans for growth?
Sarah LaHaye: Like people and organizations everywhere, One Acre Fund and the farmers we serve are affected by the COVID-19 global pandemic. We still expect to grow this year, but at a somewhat slower pace.
Farmers face challenges on two fronts. First, rural Africa does not have strong infrastructure to deal with a health crisis, so we are doing everything we can to prevent the disease from spreading. This includes making mass deliveries of soap and providing training on things like social distancing and building hand-washing stations in areas without piped water. Secondly, farmers are under intense financial pressure, as shutdowns limit their ability to sell crops in markets and make income through casual labor. We do expect this will affect our growth; because One Acre Fund provides farm inputs on credit, some families may have difficulty repaying their loans, or they may be reluctant to take on new loans next year. The season is ongoing, so we don’t know yet exactly how things will play out, but we are exploring ways to ensure farmers can re-enroll with us, perhaps through loan deferments or donor support.
Karlee Silver: Looking more broadly at your scale journey over the past several years, what other challenges have you faced, with respect to scale? How did you adjust your program to address these issues?
Sarah LaHaye: Maintaining focus is essential for scale, as it enables you to build expertise and relationships in a certain area, but at the same time, you have to look out for blind spots. One Acre Fund focuses almost exclusively on agriculture, and within that, we have historically supported staple crops – primarily maize. When we’ve missed our scale targets in recent years, it has been mainly because of external factors such as extreme weather and crop diseases that disproportionately affect staple crops. We probably could have done more earlier to keep up with climate shocks. Now, we are working hard to diversify our crop offerings beyond maize, to help farmers become more resilient. This is again why listening to your customer is so important – it helps you remain in sync when needs change.
Karlee Silver: What comes next? Where do you see One Acre Fund in the next 10 years?
Sarah LaHaye: One million farmers is an exciting milestone, but we’re mindful of the fact that it still only represents about 2 percent of the current need in Sub-Saharan Africa, where we estimate 50 million families could benefit from our program. Hunger and extreme poverty are still huge issues in the countries where we work, so we see 1 million farmers as a foundation to build from, not as an end achievement in itself. Our goal now is to build upon our current momentum. Today, we are looking ahead to the next 10 million families we hope to serve by 2030 – 4 million through our core program and 6 million through partnerships with governments and the private sector.
The magnitude of social problems facing the world today require bold, scalable solutions. We are extremely glad to see initiatives like the Million Lives Club that promote scale, because addressing global poverty is ultimately going to be a question of how organizations can bring impactful solutions to the most people. We are inspired both by the hard work of our peers and the farm families we serve, and we continue to explore new innovations and partnerships that will help us expand our reach in years to come.
Images provided by the One Acre Fund