One Acre Fund was recently asked to contribute to a book on constituent voice. The idea behind constituent voice is that people who are meant to benefit from socially-minded projects should play an active role in implementing and evaluating those projects. The new book presents eleven case studies of organizations trying to embed the perspectives and preferences of smallholder farmers into their work.
Participating in this effort got us thinking: what are the key mechanisms One Acre Fund has in place to ensure that we’re constantly learning from the farmers we serve?
Method 1: Farmers As Staff
Farmer perspectives are embedded into our program structure by virtue of the fact that farmers make up the majority of our staff. Farmers comprise roughly 90 percent of our 3,000 field operations staff. We also rely on a large volunteer network of 20,000+ farmer ‘group leaders’ to help arrange farmer meetings and lead groups in activities like planting and harvest. Field officers and group leaders spend their days in the fields of the farmers they serve gathering both formal and informal feedback. Input is then communicated upwards through weekly meetings with their managers. This staffing model forms a powerful feedback mechanism: farmers make up a majority of our staff, which boosts their influence on how One Acre Fund operates.
Method 2: Farmers as Paying Clients
Finally, we believe that treating farmers as clients and asking them for partial payment for our services is a useful tool for strengthening their say in how we operate. If the quality of our service in a particular area drops, we immediately see a drop in repayment levels, which sends a clear signal to us that something needs to be fixed. And the next season, farmers can “vote with their feet” and choose not to enroll if they find that One Acre Fund’s offerings are not worth their cost.
Method 3: Farmers as Co-Innovators
We also try to ensure that farmers play an active role in our product R&D process. We experienced some early failures with products like passion fruit and mushrooms, which, although quite appealing on paper, were not actually attractive to our farmer network. This taught us a vital lesson: we needed to include farmers in every stage of our innovation process. Now, after some initial research, we quickly move to the field, where farmers test new products through hands-on trials. We ask farmers at each stage of the process for their feedback on what worked and what didn’t. Incorporating farmer opinions in our innovations process has led us to think about the adoptability and simplicity of products, rather than just their theoretical impact.
A great example of this process in action is our rollout of trees throughout the One Acre Fund program. We first learned that grevillea trees could be a great product addition because farmers told us so. And as we developed a tree product, participation by farmers ultimately pointed us to an affordable and simple method for planting trees on a large scale. Farmer feedback was critical in scaling our grevillea tree offering to where it is today.
One Acre Fund’s mission is to generate meaningful, long-term impact for the smallholder farmers we serve. Genuinely listening to and learning from farmers is a key ingredient in fulfilling that mission. We have found time and again that listening to farmers pays dividends in terms of driving overall impact.
At a more basic level, seeking farmer input is simply the right thing to do. Farmers have the right to weigh in on products and services targeted to them. The mechanisms One Acre Fund has established for seeking and incorporating farmer feedback into our program have transformed farmers from passive beneficiaries to engaged participants who are actively shaping solutions to end hunger and poverty in their homes and communities.