Louis Terren had been working for corporations for almost five years when he came across One Acre Fund in an article about non-profit careers. He immediately visited the website, and after reading about the organization’s impressive impact, decided to apply to the new country expansion team.
Here, Louis shares his experiences working on One Acre Fund’s first-ever pilot in East Asia, and offers some sound advice for would-be applicants interested in applying to work with One Acre Fund.
What does it mean to be a New Country Scout?
Being a new country scout means being professionally curious, driven and adaptable. My role is exciting and energizing, but also requires flexibility and a willingness to see an unconventional set up as an adventure rather than a barrier. Initially, during my first three weeks in-country, I worked out of a hotel room and traveled to the field everyday on a Honda scooter. These days, I still spend a lot of time in the field, studying the market and checking that our strategy makes sense. It can be tricky though, because now I also interview candidates to build our Myanmar team, and am responsible for office and administrative work, which must be done after I get back from the field. Pilot teams are small, so people often carry a wide range of responsibilities, but we also get to work on a lot of new and exciting projects at once…it’s a trade-off!
Our early-stage work in Myanmar
One Acre Fund is running a pilot program in Myanmar. We’re based in Pyay, a town in Bago province, along the Irrawaddy River. Here, farmers mostly grow rice during the monsoon season and beans and sesame in the dry season. I flew down here four months ago to launch the pilot.
Our goal for this pilot is to test whether One Acre Fund’s model could increase farmer incomes significantly in Myanmar. We’re specifically interested in trying to raise farm profitability for smallholder farmers through yield increase and credit cost reduction. Farmers in Myanmar cultivate many different crops, but the most common crop in the Bago region where we’re located is rice. Unfortunately, rice has not been a very profitable crop for farmers here due to low yields and high costs of labor. So we are piloting a fertilizer loan program at low interest rates to give farmers the opportunity to earn greater profits by increasing the productivity of their land.
What's the Myanmar team up to?
This week, farmers are forming groups to enroll in our program, so I’m in the field everyday with our field director and field officers.
If you were to stop by our office in town, you’d meet Joseph, my agronomist colleague, who is preparing our cultivation training curriculum in Burmese, and Gloria, our accountant, who is closing the books for March and setting up our CRM system. Later this year, we’re planning to research and potentially launch other interventions, such as mechanization, access to markets, cash crops, and an open research station for seed selection and agronomy trials.
Our Priorities in Myanmar
One Acre Fund has a decade of experience in field operations serving farm families; we hope to leverage our learnings and systems from East Africa to replicate our impactful programs in the Burmese context. The fundamentals are similar: 70 percent of the population are farmers with very low yields, and who pay very high interest rates to invest in inputs for their farms.
Interestingly, unlike many of our customers in East Africa, most Burmese farmers do not struggle to grow enough to feed their families year-round. However, farmers unfortunately aren’t generating enough profits from their activities to improve their quality of life and achieve financial security. Farmers rely heavily on very high interest rate credits to cover emergency and living expenses between harvests. Our priority is to create programs that can raise farmer annual revenues so that they can build a financial safety net and break free of this debt cycle.
Favorite thing about working at One Acre Fund
I love our complete focus on impact. The organization is very effective at changing farmers’ lives in Africa, and it’s an extremely rewarding project to be part of. I hope we will achieve the same with Burmese farmers.
Biggest lesson you've learned in your role so far?
“Success is in the details” is my motto these days. In One Acre Fund jargon it’s called “zooming in”, meaning project managers need to go deep into the operational details to make sure their strategy is implementable. Often times, an idea makes sense on paper and looks promising, but it fails in the field because of simple logistical things like “farmers can’t read” or “you can’t carry 200 kilograms of fertilizer on one motorbike.” One Acre Fund has a culture of building the strategy from the field up, starting with farmer surveys and focus groups, then building up into excel models, and then back down into a field trial, and back up for analysis and strategic pivots. In my opinion, it’s this constant back-and-forth between the field and the drawing board that has made the organization excellent at execution.
Advice for candidates applying for our Myanmar team
Pack your hobbies in your suitcase and start learning Burmese! But in all seriousness, if you’re interested in a career that combines professional rigor with a little bit of risk and a lot of impact potential, I highly recommend applying to a role on our new country scouting team.