How can supplying smallholder farmers in East Africa with financing and training to reduce hunger and poverty change the world? To find out, our student fellow Irene Mutwiri sat down with Stephanie Hanson, senior vice president of policy and partnerships at One Acre Fund, a social enterprise in the process of building Africa’s largest network of smallholder farmers. She joined One Acre Fund as the director of policy and outreach in 2009. From 2006 to 2009, she covered economic and political developments in Africa and Latin America for CFR.org, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2008, she won a News and Documentary Emmy for Crisis Guide: Darfur, an interactive media guide that explores the history and context of crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Fun-fact: “I love rock climbing, hiking, and yoga (I recently became a certified yoga teacher!).”
FPI: How would you explain your job to a third grader? What is your day-to-day like?
My job is to take everything that we’re learning inside One Acre Fund and figure out ways to use that information to create additional impact in the world through collaborating or partnering with others—including governments, media, and microfinance institutions.
My day-to-day is incredibly varied. Sometimes I’m sitting in front of my computer doing Skype calls with team members in Kenya, Rwanda, or London. Sometimes I’m in one-on-one meetings. Sometimes I’m doing speaking engagements. Sometimes I’m leading trainings for people inside One Acre Fund. Every day is incredibly different.
FPI: How do you measure the impact or success of a program?
We measure economic impact by taking the percentage of our total client base that adopts a particular product or intervention, and then multiplying that percentage by the dollar impact of that product or intervention to get the total dollar impact. For example, if we’re talking about a loan for maize seed and fertilizer in Kenya, we calculate the total percentage of our client base in Kenya that has adopted that loan product, and then we conduct extensive harvest measurement to determine the dollar impact of that product in the field for actual farmers. Then we would be able to determine the total dollar impact of that specific loan product in Kenya.
FPI: What about social impact? How do you see your work informing policy makers, both domestically in East Africa and globally across the international community?
We’ve recently expanded how we define impact. Our impact vision is for farmers to have big harvests—so that’s dollar impact; healthy families— that’s social and health impact; and rich soils— that’s environmental impact. There are many different things that we’re doing to measure impact in those non-income areas around health, social benefits, and environmental impact. The impact section of the One Acre Fund website is an amazing resource on this. We are incredibly nerdy on impact and we love sharing everything that we’re doing on impact!
One Acre Fund is pretty unusual in that we have a formal government relations and policy team of over 30 people that operates within every single country where we work—six countries in Africa. We also operate in the U.S. and European policy communities. We have that team because it’s important to share what we’re learning through our field operations to help governments better understand what’s going on with farmers in their countries. We are able to give them direct feedback on how smallholder farmers are affected by current government policies, and to offer suggestions on how policies might be improved to be more friendly or beneficial to smallholder farmers.
There are also opportunities to take the things that we’ve learned from our operations and bring them to U.S. and European policymakers as they are thinking about how to allocate their international development dollars within the agriculture sector.
FPI: Where do you hope to see agricultural productivity in East Africa in five to ten years?
Sub-Saharan Africa, East Africa included, has a large yield gap between what is theoretically possible to grow and what is actually being grown in the field today. We have all the tools and technologies we need to close that yield gap, but many of those tools and technologies are not available to farmers. It’s probably unrealistic to expect that we can close the yield gap completely in five to ten years, but I would love to see us on a path toward closing that gap through increased availability and access to those basic tools and technologies—improved seed, fertilizer, good planting practices—that many farmers don’t have access to today.
FPI: So what would you say is your conservative estimate for the development of the infrastructure necessary to guarantee availability and to close the yield gap?
African governments have committed to spending at least 10% of their budgets each year on the agriculture sector. In most cases, that is not happening today. If we were to see them meet that 10% commitment, I think we would be on a strong path to closing the yield gap, but that is not currently happening.
FPI: What effect, if any, do you anticipate BREXIT may have on development efforts in Africa?
BREXIT might affect development in Africa in two ways—the total dollars that are going to development efforts in Africa via the European Union; and the total dollar levels for development that are going to Africa directly from the United Kingdom.
Right now, the UK is a majority contributor to the European Union’s development fund. With the vote to leave, it is likely that the total size of that European development fund will go down. If you assume that aid levels will be reduced across the board, that means aid levels to Africa from the EU will go down.
In terms of total dollar levels of development aid that are going directly from the UK into Africa, that is very difficult to predict. It’s possible that they’ll redeploy the money they have been sending to the EU for development and some of it will go to development efforts in Africa, but I think it’s too early to say whether that will happen or not.
There are also going to be some trade implications. There are a lot of trade agreements with individual African countries that will need to be renegotiated and I think that is just a space to keep an eye on.
FPI: What brought you into this field? What are you working on next?
I started working in international development, and specifically in agricultural development in Africa, because I was interested in doing work that would have tangible positive impact in the world. The largest group of poor people in the world is smallholder farmers—we really can’t tackle global poverty without working on agriculture.
When I worked at the Council on Foreign Relations, it was an amazing job being a journalist but it was very difficult to know if the work that I was producing had a positive social benefit. I learned a lot personally, but I didn’t feel like it was moving the needle on some of the greatest development challenges on the continent.
Working for a social enterprise, I have the opportunity to see that impact every time I go on a field visit and visit One Acre Fund clients. I am passionate about social impact and that keeps me doing what I do.
As for what I am working on next, an area that is really exciting for me is thinking about how we can develop all of the amazing leaders that we need to staff up our organization as we grow. We’re growing 30-50% a year, which is an extremely aggressive growth rate.
We have a philosophy around promoting from within, which means that we need to develop people into managers and leaders incredibly quickly. It is a priority of mine to help facilitate that leadership growth and development of young emerging leaders at One Acre Fund. I’ve been certified as a leadership coach and I’m now allocating about 10% of my time to internal coaching of young high-potential leaders within our company.
FPI: Do you have any tips for future and fellow interruptors?
A mentor once told me that most people— women included— don’t take enough risk in their careers. I’ve reflected a lot on that.
Seven years ago, I took a big risk by leaving the Council on Foreign Relations and joining One Acre Fund when it was a really small start-up with an uncertain future. It was the biggest career risk that I’ve ever taken and I’m so happy that I did that. I’ve learned a tremendous amount. I work with amazing colleagues and I believe that we’re working toward a mission that is truly impactful in the world. If I had looked at it rationally and said, “Can I guarantee that this is going to be a great next career step for me?,” the answer would have been no. There was no guarantee. I think that we have many opportunities in our lives to change direction and career. We probably would all be served well to take more risks.
Of course, sometimes we take risks and it doesn’t work out, but we always learn something along the way. I think we are very resilient as people, sometimes more than we give ourselves credit for. Knowing that you can take a risk and if it doesn’t work out, you can pick yourself up and do something else and then see where that goes—I think that’s a great professional skill to have. I think it’s how you become an interruptor, by taking those risks!