Emerging Voices: Stephanie Hanson on Empowering Female Smallholder Farmers

Posted on November 27, 2012

Originally published on CFR.org:

Emerging Voices features regular contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Stephanie Hanson, director of policy and outreach at One Acre Fund. She explains the specific obstacles facing Africa’s female farmers and One Acre Fund’s model for addressing them.


Meet Cecilia, a smallholder farmer in Lutacho village, western Kenya. Cecilia is thirty years old, and has three children with her husband. When I first met Cecilia in early 2010, agriculture was her only profession, and she was not able to grow enough food to feed her family.

Cecilia is just like millions of smallholder farmers in Africa, where agriculture is the dominant form of employment, and up to 75 percent of agriculture producers are women. Collectively, these women spend thousands of hours working on their crops, only to produce meager harvests insufficient to feed their families. Breaking the cycle of hunger and poverty for women like Cecilia requires an innovation in agriculture productivity.

Women smallholder farmers face four major challenges:

  • Poor quality seed and no fertilizer: Women have difficulty accessing seed and fertilizer; they generally do not have the money or the time to travel to an agro-dealer.
  • No access to credit: It is particularly difficult for women to access credit in rural communities, as most do not have formal title to their primary asset, land. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), only 10 percent of credit in sub-Saharan Africa is extended to women.
  • Limited education and training: Most women have only completed a few years of primary school, so they need agriculture education and training that is delivered in person.
  • No access to markets: The business of selling crops is male-dominated, and women have difficulty negotiating with traders to obtain a fair price for their crops.

In the last few years, an increasing number of development actors have acknowledged the importance of tackling these challenges in order to spur broad agriculture growth in sub-Saharan Africa. Reports from the World Bank (2008), the FAO (2010-11), and the UN Foundation (forthcoming) all highlight the particular obstacles faced by female farmers. Researchers for the latter report identified 34 different organizations or projects that explicitly targeted women farmers and were widely considered successful, but many of the organizations were not operating at scale.

The nonprofit organization that I work for, One Acre Fund, has spent the past six years developing a scalable operating model to address the major challenges that smallholder farmers face, and to serve female smallholders like Cecilia as customers.

Our operating model—farm inputs, financing, training, and market facilitation—offers a complete bundle of services meant to enable any female smallholder farmer to increase her income and become food secure. First, we distribute seed and fertilizer deep into the rural areas where our farmers live. Those inputs are provided on credit so the farmer does not have to pay cash up front. During the growing season, One Acre Fund staff provide extensive training to farmers on planting technique, composting, and erosion control, among other topics. Finally, after the harvest, staff offer training on handling and storing crops and negotiating with traders.

This model enables women smallholders to double their farm income per planted acre. Each year, One Acre Fund measures the harvest of at least 1,000 One Acre Fund farmers, as well as the harvests of a control group. This harvest survey consistently shows a 100 percent increase in income per planted acre, net of expenses on farm inputs and labor. When Cecilia had her first One Acre Fund harvest in 2010, for instance, she harvested 1.8 tons of maize from one-half acre of land—a big improvement over her previous year’s harvest of 600 pounds. This was more than enough to feed her family through “the hot period,” or hunger season, which would occur before the next year’s harvest. Cecilia decided to increase her acreage the next year and harvested 3.6 tons of maize from 1 acre of land. She sold a portion of her surplus and opened a shop in a nearby market for her husband to run. “I wanted him to feel like he had a job too!” she told me.

Cecilia is just one of One Acre Fund’s 135,000 customers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi. We think our model can scale to reach 1.5 million farmers by 2020. But those customers will be a fraction of the 35 million smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa who do not produce enough food to feed their families. We need many models that successfully reach women smallholders, and they need to be scalable. Scaling them up will not be easy. Practitioners need to be willing to share information—not only about what works, but about what doesn’t work. In many cases, learning about one organization’s mistakes can help another organization avoid making the same ones.

At One Acre Fund, we’ve tested plenty of things that haven’t worked. For instance, early in our Kenya operation, we asked farmers to repay their loans with surplus production, instead of in cash. As it turned out, farmers hated this idea, and vocally told One Acre Fund staff. Some explained that it was bad luck to let maize, the staple food, leave the community. Others said they feared not being able to purchase maize at the market later in the season. In response, we decided to accept cash repayment. Our history is full of stories like this one, and they have helped us build a stronger operation. We’ve been successful because we listen to feedback from our farmers, and iterate on our operations over time to respond to their concerns and interests.

In the last few years, interest in agriculture development has grown significantly. Many actors are now working to boost agricultural livelihoods in Africa, from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa to initiatives such as the U.S. government’s Feed the Future and the G-8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. Some are focusing on direct field work with farmers, while others work on improving the policy environment. We have ten staff dedicated to advocating for policies that benefit our clients, as well as safeguarding the progress that they are making.

It’s heartening to see that women feature prominently in all of the new global agriculture endeavors. There is now widespread consensus on the challenges that women farmers face, and those challenges have been extensively documented and analyzed. This knowledge offers a tremendous opportunity for impact. For practitioners in the agriculture sector, it’s our responsibility to turn this knowledge into action. We need to learn from our failures, as well as our successes, and we need to be laser-focused on our customers: women smallholder farmers.

Posted in: CFR