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Climate and Soils

Moses Odoli with his drought-affected farm Moses Odoli stands among his drought-affected maize crops in Western Kenya.

Climate change is an increasingly urgent global concern that disproportionately affects the world’s smallholder farmers, who typically depend on rain-fed agriculture and often already live on the edge of subsistence. One Acre Fund is in the process of building Africa’s largest multi-layer climate resilience shield for smallholders. Our goal is to transform one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable populations into a frontline force against climate change, putting farmers at the forefront of the global climate dialogue, where they belong. 

One Acre Fund’s approach to tackling the climate change challenges faced by smallholders is guided by the three core principles of climate-smart agriculture: building smallholder resilience and adaptation, implementing practices that mitigate climate change, and sustainable intensification of farm production:

  • Adaptation: Proven solutions and new innovations can help agriculture—and communities that rely on it—adapt to climate change. By scaling these, we will protect mass numbers of the world’s most vulnerable people.
  • Mitigation: Agriculture can mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration and avoidance of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Agricultural mitigation pathways simultaneously contribute to rural development and broader environmental protection, ensuring that smallholder communities can thrive.
  • Sustainable Intensification: Preventing further loss of native forest and savanna is paramount to slowing emissions of greenhouse gases and to protecting biodiversity. Sustainable intensification of agricultural production enables smallholders to grow more on existing farmland. 

These opportunities have not been met at scale for one reason: Farmers are difficult to serve. Smallholders live in remote and rural areas, creating barriers of physical isolation and market exclusion—the same barriers that have separated generations of farmers from the basic tools and services needed to increase their farm productivity. One Acre Fund’s core model is specifically designed to overcome these barriers, making it the ideal delivery system for our growing suite of climate smart products and services, described below.

Adaptation

Crop Insurance. Agriculture is inherently an unpredictable livelihood strategy. Crop insurance is critical to buffering this volatility, providing a financial safety net in the case of crop losses due to extreme weather, pest outbreaks or other shocks. Every One Acre Fund family in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, and Uganda is now achieving a powerful level of resilience against external shocks through our crop insurance coverage. One Acre Fund is the largest purchaser of crop insurance on behalf of smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, and we plan to continue expanding our coverage network—as well as the value and impact of our insurance product—in the years to come.

Joseph Khisa of Kenya Joseph Khisa prepares his family's land for for planting in Chwele, Kenya.

Compost and Soil Organic Matter. Degraded soils that have lost their fertility are causally linked to chronic poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. Fertile and healthy soils—in particular soils that are rich in organic matter—are a critical resource bank, providing water and nutrient retention, resilience to drought, high crop yield potential, and other adaptive services. In recognition of the importance of healthy soils, we provide ongoing training to One Acre Fund farmers on integrated soil fertility management and we provide products that build long-term soil health.

Crop Diversity & Intercropping. In East Africa, a small handful of staple crops dominate the agricultural landscape. This leaves smallholders exposed to climate-related disasters and new pests that can wipe out entire crops. Crop diversification—both within (i.e., genetic diversification) and between crops—represents an important resilience strategy; farmers who diversify their crop mix are hedged against shocks that occur during critical times in the growing season and/or target specific crop varieties. And the ancillary benefits of diversification are numerous, including enhanced family nutrition, access to new markets, and soil health improvements. One Acre Fund provides optimized seed choice for staple crops through a constantly updated catalogue of seeds tailored to agro-ecological zones and farmer preference, and we also promote dozens of alternative and supplementary crops such as milletsoybeans, and vegetables.

Mitigation

Soil Organic Carbon. Globally, soils are among the largest reservoirs of carbon. However, intense cultivation pressures over the last century, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, have led to widespread soil carbon depletion; in effect soils have been ‘mined’ of their carbon. The widespread adoption of improved land management practices is key to restoring soil carbon. Throughout each season, One Acre Fund delivers field-based trainings to all clients on soil management techniques that can build soil carbon such as composting, residue retention/mulching, legume intercropping, crop rotation, erosion control, and acidity amelioration. 

Beatrice Barasa with her Grevillea trees "I like grevillea trees because when I plant my food, the trees don't destroy my crops like some other trees would," says Beatrice Barasa as she stands in front of the grevillea trees she planted with One Acre Fund. Some day she plans cut them down and make timber to sell and build from.

Reforestation. In East Africa, the conversion of native forests and savannas to croplands in recent decades has dramatically reduced tree cover and released millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Because of their ability to sequester carbon in their biomass as well as secure soils against erosion, provide windbreaks, and offer diversified food, fiber and fuel products, trees represent a key strategy to restore degraded lands and mitigate climate change. However, in much of East Africa, production of tree saplings is often limited to community or professional nurseries, which many smallholder farmers can’t access. We’ve helped make trees accessible to all of our clients by providing tree seed planting kits, and estimate that One Acre Fund farmers have successfully planted 8 million trees and counting. 

Clean Energy Products. Farmers typically illuminate their houses with small kerosene lamps and cook over simple wood fires or charcoal stoves. In addition to atmospheric carbon emissions, the traditional use of fuels in lighting and cooking leads to indoor air pollution which causes 600,000 premature deaths and millions of cases of respiratory disease annually in Sub-Saharan Africa. Solar lighting and clean cookstove technologies significantly reduce carbon emissions from biomass burning, are more cost-effective and contribute towards improved family health and educational outcomes. One Acre Fund is promoting the widespread adoption of these clean energy products. We are currently one of the top five largest solar distributors in Sub-Saharan Africa, and we continue to trial and scale up new solar lighting and cookstove technologies across our massive farmer network. 

Violet Nalinya prepares food with her cookstove in Kenya Violet Nalinya prepares a meal using her cookstove in Bungoma, Kenya.

Sustainable Intensification

Closing the ‘Yield Gap’. Most smallholder farms in East Africa suffer from a ‘yield gap’—the shortfall in a farmer’s actual yield compared to the genetic potential yield of that crop under local agro-ecological conditions. For example, across East Africa the average maize yield is roughly 1.6 t/ha, 3x lower than the yield potential of 4-5 t/ha for short-maturity maize in rain-fed systems. Closing the yield gap is thus one of the best ways to intensify agricultural productivity and increase farmer income. We offer regular trainings on a wide range of improved farming practices and access to inputs and technologies that work synergistically to sustainably increase crop yields.

High-Performing Crop Varieties. Most farmers in East Africa rely on a small pool of local crop varieties which are often low-yielding and susceptible to disease. As the effects of climate change grow more severe, smallholder farmers will face a combination of higher temperatures, major changes in rainfall patterns, and accompanying shifts in pest and disease pressure. To confront these challenges, improved hybrid crop varieties offer important traits: increased yield potential, resistance to new and emerging pests, drought tolerance, and performance adaptation to local agro-ecological zones. One Acre Fund is field-testing and offering a broad catalogue of improved crop varieties, and delivering optimized agronomic recommendations on a district-by-district level, ensuring that each season’s crops are optimized for local conditions.

Our Commitment to Long-Term Impact

Maria Lume and Joshua Mbwilo with their daughters Ester and Ann in Sadoni, Tanzania Maria Lume and Joshua Mbwilo with their daughters Ester and Ann in Sadoni, Tanzania.

These climate smart agriculture initiatives contribute to One Acre Fund’s growing focus on long-term impact. Our organizational mission is not only to help smallholder farmers meet their needs today, but to do so in a way that ensures long-term results for them, their children, and all future generations of farmers. The success of smallholders, both now and in coming years, depends on maintaining a healthy environment, in particular one with soil rich in organic matter, microorganisms, and nutrients—especially in the face of a changing climate.

One Acre Fund is uniquely positioned to tackle this challenge and to deliver long-term results. The foundation of our operating model is a multi-year relationship with the farmers that we serve. We engage this rapidly growing network to continuously trial promising new products and techniques in farmers’ own fields. (For a sampling of historical trials, please visit our Insights Library.) Through interventions such as those listed above, as well as an ever-growing suite of new innovations, we will increasingly provide a holistic service model that protects and improves farmer livelihoods for years to come.

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