Developing Innovative Agricultural Products for Smallholder Farmers in Eastern Africa
One Acre Fund is a nonprofit organization that supplies smallholder farmers in East Africa with asset-based financing and agriculture training services to reduce hunger and poverty. The organization also runs a research and development program to develop new products and services for their customers.
IFA: Can you tell us about some of the most promising agricultural products that you are currently trialing or that have recently completed the test phase?
P. Bell: During the Long Rains 2018 season, we are offering agricultural lime as a "core product" in our Kenya Program. This means that more than 350,000 clients, all smallholder farmers, will have access to this highly impactful product.
It has taken several years of trialing to determine the correct amount and methods of application, as well as to find the best way to market it. A large proportion of our clients - and many farmers in East Africa - are growing crops in acidic soils.
We've also just scaled up a Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease (MLND) resistant hybrid maize variety as a "core product." MLND affects many farmers in the areas we serve. Our trials have indicated substantial impact in areas where MLND is present.
Still in our trial phases, I'm pretty excited about a few highland rice varieties. This is a new area for our work in Kenya. Rice prices in East Africa have risen due to a substantial increase in demand, which could translate into a lot of impact for clients.
IFA: Once a product has passed the trial phase, what is the next stage and how is it rolled out to customers?
P. Bell: Once a product has passed our first three innovation phases and has shown impact, the product is included in our core program catalogue. This catalogue contains all the impactful products (fertilizer, seeds, lime and Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) Bags) that One Acre Fund offers to clients.
This catalogue is used by our Field Officers during enrollment and marketing who sign farmers onto our program and help them choose products. As the growing seasons gets closer, we deliver products within walking distance of clients. At this time, Field Officers shift roles and begin training farmers on improved agricultural practices and how to make the best use of the products just delivered.
IFA: How do you choose which innovations to pursue? What criteria do you use for judging whether an agricultural innovation would work or be beneficial in Kenya?
P. Bell: The first step is identifying the challenges that our clients are facing. Once we find a potential innovation that would address these challenges, we then evaluate it for its potential impact.
Impact is the net dollar increase clients will gain from purchasing or using the potential innovation. Within the process, we also evaluate the potential complexity and client preferences for the innovation. We want to make sure that it is impactful, but also that we can fully realize that impact through effective training and client use of the innovation.
IFA: As a trained soil scientist and manager of One Acre Fund's internal soil analytical laboratory, what type of innovations do you think could be introduced to improve soils in East Africa?
P. Bell : In the near team, we are very excited about lime and custom-blend fertilizers. For many smallholder farmers in East Africa, access to lime has huge potential for sustainable soil management. Without access to and use of it, many farmers will not see optimal returns on their other investments in soil management.
We are also very excited about the potential for custom-blend fertilizers. Moving away from blanket fertilizer recommendations for entire regions in East Africa and more towards custom recommendations and fertilizers could improve soil nutrient management in a big way.
About Patrick Bell:
Patrick Bell is the Product Innovations Senior Manager for One Acre Fund - Kenya, based in Kakamega, Kenya. He leads the Product Innovations team, which includes a broad range of R&D portfolios including agriculture, livestock, solar, market access, and health. Previously, Patrick served as a U.S. Borlaug Fellow in Global Food Security in Tanzania, worked as a Program Manager for the USAID-funded Innovative Agriculture Research Initiative (iAGRI), and was a consultant in Climate Smart Agriculture for the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Patrick received his PhD in Soil Science from the Carbon Sequestration and Management Center at The Ohio State University, and his M.S., M.Ag., and B.S. from Oklahoma State University.