Eric Pohlman in the field

Eric Pohlman Wins 2015 Norman Borlaug Award

One Acre Fund's current Rwanda Country Director is recognized for his work in developing highly innovative programs.
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Eric at One Acre Fund's Rwanda offices.
Eric at One Acre Fund's Rwanda offices.

One Acre Fund Rwanda Country Director and Senior Partner at One Acre Fund Eric Pohlman was recently announced as the winner of the 2015 Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application. Eric was recognized for his work in developing highly innovative programs that are transforming subsistence agriculture in rural Rwanda.

The award, endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation, recognizes scientists and researchers under the age of 40 who emulate the innovation and dedication to food security demonstrated by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and World Food Prize Founder Dr. Norman E. Borlaug while working in the field with farmers and producers.

A native of the United States, Pohlman, 33, currently serves as Rwanda Country Director and Senior Partner at One Acre Fund. In developing his vision to help poor farmers better afford modern agricultural technology, Pohlman was inspired by the great agricultural scientist and World Food Prize Founder Norman Borlaug’s desire to expand the Green Revolution. Pohlman recognized a major barrier preventing its spread to Africa was the lack of access to credit for subsistence farmers. To that end, Pohlman was instrumental in framing the implementation of an innovative farm finance model, which currently serves 100,000 farm families in southwest Rwanda.

Learn more about the excitement surrounding this year's World Food Prize, and continuing reading for the full text of Pohlman's acceptance speech.

Eric's Acceptance Speech

I am one member of an amazing team at One Acre Fund.  Today, a One Acre Fund field officer in Rwanda will walk miles to teach a farmer how to space her maize.  Today a bookkeeper in Kenya will diligently data-enter over one thousand farmer-credit payments.  Today a logistics officer in Burundi will overcome axle-breaking mud to get to the last mile.  I am proud to serve beside three thousand One Acre Fund staff who everyday carry on Dr. Borlaug’s legacy of “taking it to the farmer.”  While too numerous to name individually, each member of the One Acre Fund team merits recognition for their daily work and shares in the honor of this award.

Personally, I would like to thank my wife, Margaret, who started this work with me in Rwanda and who is in Burundi right now continuing it.  You will hear many of her words in my voice tonight. I would like to thank my mom and my dad for opening a hallway of opportunity for me from which I could choose any door. And my younger brother Dan for letting me chase him down that hallway routinely.  I would like to thank Andrew Youn for inviting me on this One Acre adventure.  Finally, I would like to thank the World Food Prize and the Rockefeller Foundation for this great honor, and for being a beacon of hope in the fight against hunger.

I believe farmers have the most important job in our communities.  Farmers grow the food that we eat, and what we eat determines our health.  Farmers grow the surplus that we buy, and what we buy determines the growth of our economy.  Farmers decide how to use the land that we steward, and what we steward determines the lifespan of our planet.  Farmers are at the center of our health, our economy, and our environment.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the US Declaration of Independence and US Constitution also wrote, "the small landholders are the most precious part of the state,” "the cultivators are the most valuable citizens."

This makes sense.  Deep down this makes sense because long before astronauts took the first steps on the moon, farmers took the first steps towards civilization.  Farmers define our connection to the earth.  Farmers connect man and nature in the most elemental and profound of ways.

From my vantage atop a green hill in Rwanda, I see the importance of farmers everyday.  I see the quilt-work they sow: squares of beans, rectangles of maize, ridges of sweet potatoes, rows of coffee and big blocks of bananas.

From my vantage atop a green hill in Rwanda, I see farmers hard at work everyday.  I see a country rising.  Seed by seed, plant by plant, harvest by harvest.  I see a whole country rising.

My neighbors on this hill have seen more change than I, but in the last eight years, I have seen thousands of farmers go from hungry to full.  And from full to surplus.  I have seen a country that was a net food importer in 2008 become a net food exporter in 2012.  From food insecure to food secure.  Today, Rwanda is one of the only countries in the world with a positive rate of forestation.  A feat only possible when farmers produce more food on less land.

If you visit Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, you will see construction cranes across the city.  You will meet young graduates of computer science and engineering.  And if you pause to ask these young graduates how they managed to get their degree, many will tell you a story about the family cow or the banana field which paid for their school fees.

The individual acts of smallholder farmers have built the foundation of Rwanda rising.

Looking globally, farmers are at the root of our biggest challenges.

Today agriculture employs 32 percent of the world’s workforce.  It employs 70 percent of the world’s poor.  Investments in agriculture are 2 times more effective at fighting poverty.  Malnutrition and stunting affect eight-hundred million people.  Agriculture uses 34 percent of our land, 70 percent of our water, and generates 30 percent of our carbon emissions.

Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian farmer and economist in the late 1800s would look at these statistics and see a big opportunity.  Pareto is famous for observing that 80 percent of his peas came from only 20 percent of the pods.  Clearly Mendel's improved pea varieties had not yet made it to Italy.  The Pareto principle, which is now often used in management curriculum, states:

80 percent of the outcome often comes from only 20 percent of the effort.

This type of thinking focuses us on the 20 percent that is most important.  Limited time and resource push us as leaders to think about which lever has the outsized leverage?  Which fulcrum has the highest peak?

It is easy to spin around discussing the big problems in the world: hunger, poverty, climate change and brainstorm thousands of solutions.  I often find myself blue from debate or dizzy from thinking through so many possible answers.  I believe this is why Dr. Borlaug struck such a chord in the global conversation.  He ripped through the husk and got right to the kernel.  “Take it to the farmer” he said.  It’s that simple.

I believe that "taking it to the farmer" is the 20 percent effort that will get us 80 percent of the positive outcomes we want in the world.

Taking it to the farmer means distribution without excuses.  It means financing designed for smallholders.  It means training in the field.

Taking it to the farmer means getting our shoes muddy as we do everything we can to deliver the best science and the best services to farmers because they have the most important job in our communities - growing our food.

Today a One Acre Fund Farmer in Rwanda will learn how to space her maize.  Today a One Acre Fund farmer in Kenya will enroll for her first agricultural credit.  Today a One Acre Fund farmer in Burundi will receive a delivery of modern farm inputs.  These small individual acts sum to 300,000 households who are now connected through One Acre Fund to the best agriculture research and technology available in East Africa. 

From my vantage, atop a green hill in Rwanda, the harvest is looking good.

I give you my heartfelt thanks for the 2015 Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application by the Rockefeller Foundation and I encourage all of us in the spirit Dr. Borlaug to continue putting farmers first.


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