Small-scale subsistence farmers are on the front lines of a global crisis – climate change. In Sub-Saharan Africa, farmers without sustainable avenues for increasing their yields are often compelled to “harvest” their natural environments through deforestation, converting natural land to farmland, and participating in other unsustainable agricultural practices. This creates a cycle of land degradation and poor yields. Over time, these practices accelerate the effects of climate change, exacerbating long-term yield declines, and severe weather shocks.
We believe that rural smallholder farmers play an important part in disrupting the troubling cycle described above. As a result, we are working with our growing network of more than 1 million rural families to strengthen farmer resilience to the impact of climate change through research, farmer field-trials, and the scaling up of promising interventions across our operations. Our approach is guided by two core principles of climate-smart agriculture: promoting strategies that enhance smallholder adaptation, and implementing practices that mitigate climate change.
- Smallholder adaptation involves reducing farmers’ vulnerability to the effects of climate change by building their resilience in the face of climate-related shocks. Adaptation initiatives include crop diversification, micro-insurance, and improvements to soil health.
- Climate change mitigation activities help farmers address the drivers of climate change while sustainably increasing their yields. Mitigation activities include agroforestry, conservation agriculture (still in the early trial stage), and increasing soil carbon stocks.
Given the inherently risky and challenging nature of farming, farmer resilience is a top organizational priority for One Acre Fund. We are now trialing and scaling adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable intensification interventions to improve farmers’ abilities to cope with weather volatility and other shocks.
Seeds and crop diversity: Across our operations, we provide farmers with optimal seed varieties based on local climates. We also continue to test and offer new varieties for maximum yields and higher resilience to extreme weather, pests, and diseases. Additionally, it is important that farmers diversify their crops to build resilience to single-crop shocks, improve family nutrition, and diversify incomes. Therefore, in many of the countries where we work, we supply farmers with inputs for an increasingly diverse mix of crops including grains, legumes, tubers, and local greens. We also promote intercropping (the cultivation of two or more crops simultaneously on the same plot of land) for healthy soils and long-term land productivity.
Insurance: If extreme weather damages harvests, partial loan forgiveness (made possible through crop insurance) can provide a critical safety net to protect families from financial disaster. Disaster-related loan forgiveness also increases farmers’ confidence to invest in new approaches aimed at improving productivity, helping lower the risk of purchasing important inputs or experimenting with less familiar planting methods. One Acre Fund is proud to be one of the largest purchasers of crop insurance on behalf of smallholders in Africa.
Improved soil health: Soil is farmers’ single most important resource for increasing long-term yield productivity. As a result, soil interventions form a crucial part of One Acre Fund’s broader climate-resilience initiatives. We equip farmers to increase their long-term soil productivity through an array of soil health products and trainings. These include trainings on composting and erosion reduction, and providing access to legume inoculants and agricultural lime — a limestone-based amendment that improves the pH of acidic soils. The interventions are highly impactful: in an internal study, farmers with acidic soils saw an additional $22 in impact per farmer from using agricultural lime.
Agricultural Training: As part of our broader agricultural trainings, our field officers deliver sessions on climate-smart techniques, including land management, the production and application of compost, use of agricultural lime, and intercropping (identifying the best legume-grain mix, and assessing plant densities). In the 2020 planting season in our Kenya operations, more than 30,000 farmers used agricultural lime in their farms, following tailored trainings on its effective usage given local soils’ pH, as well as how to apply it through broadcasting. We also continuously produce new and improved trainings that seek to address emerging climatic, pest, or disease-related challenges. For instance, in response to the recent locust invasion in East Africa, we delivered trainings on pest detection and management, while working closely with government actors in the affected countries.
Agroforestry: Trees are a low-cost, high-impact asset when planted and harvested correctly. A 10-cent seedling, properly planted, can grow over seven years into a $5-7 tree. They are less susceptible to theft and disease than livestock, and farmers can sell their products (firewood, fruits, and timber) in seasons when harvests are poor. Trees also produce a range of environmental impacts such as preventing soil erosion, improving soil fertility, and sequestering carbon. In addition, reforestation is a high priority for many governments in the countries where we operate. Since 2012, One Acre Fund farmers have planted over 40 million trees, creating significant environmental and financial benefits for rural areas.
Solar products: We are one of the largest distributors of solar light products in Africa, having provided over 1,000,000 to rural households since 2012. These have become a critical component of our product portfolio. The use of solar lights helps mitigate climate change by replacing energy sources such as firewood and kerosene that emit greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide. Additionally, we have found that when a family purchases their first solar lights, their household spending on kerosene, candles, and other forms of lighting is reduced, generating an economic gain of an average $40 annual savings per home. Subsequent purchases of a second or third solar light were found to generate quality-of-life benefits rather than economic gains — such as better lighting and security, decreased kerosene-related health issues, and more evening study time for children.
Inorganic fertilizer: We promote a combination of organic and conventional agricultural practices to enable farmers to increase their yields while minimizing the risks of any negative environmental impacts from farming. Accordingly, we encourage modest use of inorganic fertilizer, and have found that the carbon sequestration from increased biomass (due to more robust plant growth) more than outweighs the emissions associated with fertilizer delivery and application. Some of the specific practices that we promote in regard to fertilizers include:
- Microdosing - involves applying small quantities of fertilizer close to the seed or plant. This allows the farmer to limit total input application and get the most efficient use of the fertilizer as possible. The rates we recommend are quite low compared to what is common in commercial agriculture.
- Deep placement - includes covering it with soil, which significantly limits the potential for greenhouse gas emissions (nitrous oxide) from the fertilizer once applied to the soil.
- Improved nitrogen application timing – includes a “leaf-count” method for applying nitrogen-based fertilizer. This helps farmers identify timing tied to crops' physiological development for when to apply fertilizer, and limits unnecessary and extra applications. It also minimizes the risk of fertilizer leaching, which can cause soil acidification.
- Organic amendments - One Acre Fund always communicates the importance of using organic compost or manure in conjunction with inorganic fertilizers, as this is critical for long-term soil health.
Our Commitment to Long-Term Impact
The realization of our organizational goals and the success of smallholders, both now and in the coming years, depends on maintaining a healthy environment, with soils rich in organic matter, micro-organisms, 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 our research stations as well as farmers’ own fields. For a sampling of historical trials, please visit our Insights Library. Through the above-mentioned interventions, as well as an ever-growing suite of new innovations, we will continue to support farmers in strengthening their resilience to the impacts of climate change, and protecting their livelihoods.