American writer and environmental activist Wendell Berry once described soil as “the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all… Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
Indeed, soil health is essential to ensuring communities all over the globe are healthy, food secure and resilient in the face of environmental shocks. Yet nowhere do Berry’s words ring more true than in sub-Saharan Africa, where smallholder farmers living on less than $2 per day depend on increasingly depleted soils to produce food for their families. Faced with poor harvests year after year, these farm families experience seasonal cycles of hunger and meal skipping.
Why Long-Term Impact Matters
One Acre Fund provides a comprehensive service bundle to 280,000 smallholder farmers living in rural Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. In everything we do, we place the farmer first, and we measure our success in our ability to make more farmers more prosperous. On average, farmers who enroll in our program realize a 50 percent increase in income on every planted acre, and produce enough food to feed their families plus a surplus. Farmers can then invest their surplus in more farmland, new business ventures, or in their children’s education.
Working to break the cycle of hunger and make more farmers more prosperous is what we do every day. But in order to truly serve farmers and work in their best interests, we need to help them overcome today’s challenges while also ensuring that their grandchildren can live prosperous, healthy lives. We have a long-term vision in which every farm family has the knowledge and means to achieve big harvests, support healthy families, and cultivate rich soil. If we fulfill this vision, we will be making significant progress towards the development goals we set as a community. But more importantly, we will be helping bring a permanent end to cyclical poverty for millions of people.
What We're Doing Now
In order to make this lofty vision a reality, we have a series of initiatives – some long-standing components of our program, and some brand new – to ensure that our program will have a positive impact on farmers and their families for generations to come. Since soil health is one of the most important drivers of long-term farm viability, it is no coincidence that it is also the central theme linking these strategies.
- Soil Studies: On the heels of a retrospective soil study completed in 2014, we are now conducting a longitudinal study that will give us incredible insight into the effect of our program on long-term soil health and will allow us to hold ourselves more accountable for these effects.
- We have established an internal soil analytics lab, which will help ensure that soil health is an ongoing priority at One Acre Fund. With the capacity to process thousands of samples per month, we will be able to support the longitudinal study and also a wide array of farmer-focused soil health trials.
- Through our robust innovations platform we are testing an extensive range of practices to boost soil health including biochar, green manure cover crops, rhizobia, conservation agriculture, and more agroforestry options. Some of the successful innovations that have made it into our core program are listed below.
- We offer grevillea trees as part of our loan package to farmers. Besides providing farmers with firewood, livestock fodder and shade, these trees protect against soil erosion and keep nutrients in the ground. Grevillea leaf mulch improves soils, and like all trees they help reduce the amount of harmful CO2 gas in the atmosphere. (We offer Calliandra trees in some areas as well.)
- We encourage intercropping. Intercropping allows farmers to produce greater yields on a given piece of land. It also prevents soil erosion, increases insect biodiversity (which means less pests), allows for a more diversified diet, both in terms of nutrition and timing of food availability, and provides greater assurance of food in the event that one crop fails.
- We promote composting for the production of organic fertilizer. In Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda, we train farmers in compost creation and we promote this heavily. After harvest, farmers are encouraged to lay corn stalks out in their fields, covered with dirt and water. These corn stalks return nutrients to the soil as they decompose.
- We offer training on sustainable agricultural practices that helps protect the soil, including topics like erosion prevention and integrated soil fertility management.
As One Acre Fund continues to grow and serve even more farmers, pioneering long-term solutions that allow us to serve farmers and protect and enhance soil health is our top priority. We look forward to sharing more information on One Acre Fund’s approach to soil health for months and years to come.