Taking it to the farmer ~ the value of “leadership technology”

Posted by on November 25th, 2015 | 0 Comments »



By Margaret M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Global Harvest Initiative





As we draw towards the traditional holiday of Thanksgiving, I am reminded of how we need something beyond technology and innovation to help feed the world and to sustain the planet.  That intangible “something” holds the key to lifting up and building the status of small-holder farmers around the world—it’s the real connection of face-to-face engagement, regular mentoring and leadership.

This commitment to direct engagement was illustrated in the life of Dr. Norman Borlaug, who believed in taking new ideas and innovation directly to farmers in Mexico, India and Pakistan in order to make an impact on their lives and their farm business.   I am also inspired to see this same practice of direct engagement in the life and work of Eric B. Pohlman, the co-founder and Rwanda Country Director of the One Acre Fund.

Eric Pohlman, recipient of the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application

Eric Pohlman, recipient of the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application

I met Eric on the occasion of his award ceremony to receive The Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application during the World Food Prize and Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa in October, 2015.   His acceptance speech (posted in entirety below) revealed his dedication, humility and love and respect for the farmers in Rwanda.  Like Thomas Jefferson, Eric sees farmers as “the most valuable citizens,” and as the greatest stewards of our planet.   And like Norman Borlaug, Eric believes that technology alone will not solve the needs of food production and sustainability—technology must be surrounded with “an ecosystem of behavioral technology” so that farmers will reap the benefits of innovation.

The One Acre Fund model combines basic seeds and fertilizer and tools with flexible loans for affordability, delivery of technology along with extension and training, and face-to-face dissemination of information focusing on key management tasks.   This provides confidence to the cultivators, many of whom have never previously received support to be successful farmers.  In Rwanda, the One Acre Fund aims to reach 10 percent of the farming population with support in the coming four years: many of these are women farmers, who will now be able to feed their families and invest in their own enterprises.

PHOTO: One Acre Fund

PHOTO: One Acre Fund

Congratulations to Eric Pohlman and the entire One Acre Fund team on the receipt of the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application—and thank you for inspiring all of us to keep on “taking it to the farmer!”

In January, Margaret will travel to Rwanda and will have the opportunity to see the One Acre Fund in action—stay tuned for her letters from the field in early 2016


Acceptance Speech for the 2015 Norman Borlaug Award

By Eric Pohlman, October 14, 2015    Des Moines, Iowa

I am one member of an amazing team at One Acre Fund.  Today, a One Acre Fund field officer in Rwanda will walk miles to teach a farmer how to space her maize.  Today a bookkeeper in Kenya will diligently data-enter over one thousand farmer-credit payments.  Today a logistics officer in Burundi will overcome axle-breaking mud to get to the last mile.  I am proud to serve beside three thousand One Acre Fund staff who everyday carry on Dr. Borlaug’s legacy of “taking it to the farmer.”  While too numerous to name individually, each member of the One Acre Fund team merits recognition for their daily work and shares in the honor of this award.by Eric Pohlman, October 14, 2015    Des Moines, Iowa

Personally, I would like to thank my wife, Margaret, who started this work with me in Rwanda and who is in Burundi right now continuing it.  You will hear many of her words in my voice tonight. I would like to thank my mom and my dad for opening a hallway of opportunity for me from which I could choose any door. And my younger brother Dan for letting me chase him down that hallway routinely.  I would like to thank Andrew Youn for inviting me on this One Acre adventure.  Finally, I would like to thank the World Food Prize and the Rockefeller Foundation for this great honor, and for being a beacon of hope in the fight against hunger.

I believe farmers have the most important job in our communities.  Farmers grow the food that we eat, and what we eat determines our health.  Farmers grow the surplus that we buy, and what we buy determines the growth of our economy.  Farmers decide how to use the land that we steward, and what we steward determines the lifespan of our planet.  Farmers are at the center of our health, our economy, and our environment.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the US Declaration of Independence and US Constitution also wrote, “the small landholders are the most precious part of the state,” “the cultivators are the most valuable citizens.”

This makes sense.  Deep down this makes sense because long before astronauts took the first steps on the moon, farmers took the first steps towards civilization.  Farmers define our connection to the earth.  Farmers connect man and nature in the most elemental and profound of ways.

From my vantage atop a green hill in Rwanda, I see the importance of farmers every day.  I see the quilt-work they sow: squares of beans, rectangles of maize, ridges of sweet potatoes, rows of coffee and big blocks of bananas.

From my vantage atop a green hill in Rwanda, I see farmers hard at work every day.  I see a country rising.  Seed by seed, plant by plant, harvest by harvest.  I see a whole country rising.

My neighbors on this hill have seen more change than I, but in the last eight years, I have seen thousands of farmers go from hungry to full.  And from full to surplus.  I have seen a country that was a net food importer in 2008 become a net food exporter in 2012.  From food insecure to food secure.  Today, Rwanda is one of the only countries in the world with a positive rate of forestation.  A feat only possible when farmers produce more food on less land.

If you visit Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, you will see construction cranes across the city.  You will meet young graduates of computer science and engineering.  And if you pause to ask these young graduates how they managed to get their degree, many will tell you a story about the family cow or the banana field which paid for their school fees.

The individual acts of smallholder farmers have built the foundation of Rwanda rising.

Looking globally, farmers are at the root of our biggest challenges.

Today agriculture employs 32% of the world’s workforce.  It employs 70% of the world’s poor.  Investments in agriculture are 2x more effective at fighting poverty.  Malnutrition and stunting affect eight-hundred million people.  Agriculture uses 34% of our land, 70% of our water, and generates 30% of our carbon emissions.

Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian farmer and economist in the late 1800’s would look at these statistics and see a big opportunity.  Pareto is famous for observing that 80% of his peas came from only 20% of the pods.  Clearly Mendel’s improved pea varieties had not yet made it to Italy.  The Pareto principle, which is now often used in management curriculum, states:

80% of the outcome often comes from only 20% of the effort.

This type of thinking focuses us on the 20% that is most important.  Limited time and resource push us as leaders to think about which lever has the outsized leverage?  Which fulcrum has the highest peak?

It is easy to spin around discussing the big problems in the world: hunger, poverty, climate change and brainstorm thousands of solutions.  I often find myself blue from debate or dizzy from thinking through so many possible answers.  I believe this is why Dr. Borlaug struck such a chord in the global conversation.  He ripped through the husk and got right to the kernel.  “Take it to the farmer” he said.  It’s that simple.

I believe that “taking it to the farmer” is the 20% effort that will get us 80% of the positive outcomes we want in the world.

Taking it to the farmer means distribution without excuses.  It means financing designed for smallholders.  It means training in the field.

Taking it to the farmer means getting our shoes muddy as we do everything we can to deliver the best science and the best services to farmers because they have the most important job in our communities – growing our food.

Today a One Acre Fund Farmer in Rwanda will learn how to space her maize.  Today a One Acre Fund farmer in Kenya will enroll for her first agricultural credit.  Today a One Acre Fund farmer in Burundi will receive a delivery of modern farm inputs.  These small individual acts sum to 300,000 households who are now connected through One Acre Fund to the best agriculture research and technology available in East Africa.

From my vantage, atop a green hill in Rwanda, the harvest is looking good.

I give you my heartfelt thanks for the 2015 Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application by the Rockefeller Foundation and I encourage all of us in the spirit Dr. Borlaug to continue putting farmers first.

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Today’s Conversation: Can Agriculture Help Mitigate Climate Change? »

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