Category Archives: This Works

300,000 Ethiopian Farmers Can’t All Be Wrong

I almost choked on my cheerios the other morning when I ran into  this amazing story in The Guardian:

Ethiopia’s farmers are flocking to a hotline that provides free agricultural advice about planting crops, using fertiliser and preparing land as part of a government initiative to turn subsistence farmers into surplus sellers.

The automated hotline has received nearly 1.5m calls from more than 300,000 farmers since it launched 12 weeks ago, according to Khalid Bomba, CEO of the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), an internationally backed government initiative. The 90 lines are now taking an average of 35,000 calls a day.

This is huge. One thing you very quickly learn when you look at hunger in Africa is that farming is a knowledge industry, and lack of access to proper advice is a major stumbling block for small farmers as they try to break out of the poverty cycle.

“Extension services” – state bureaucracies set up to provide this kind of advice are often cumbersome, corrupt, unresponsive, or all three. In plenty of cases, they do little more than distribute patronage ahead of elections. Extension pilots do succeed now and again, but scale-up is elusive.

And so, shockingly, very basic knowledge on how to plant (“sow seed in rows, regularly spaced” say) fails to reach the ground. The upshot is real hunger.

Finding an implementable, efficient, cost-effective, scalable solution to the problem of how to get good advice to poor farmers is one very big step on the road to guaranteeing food security in Africa. Ethiopia may be on the cusp of achieving this.

Is the wider sector listening?

He’s Too Good

The deeper I get into it, the more I get why Chris Blattman is the closest thing the Development Blogosphere has to an Andrew Sullivan figure – a proper Alpha Blogger.

Start with this video – I can’t embed it because, perversely, Yale didn’t upload it to YouTube – and start watching from 3:40. The 17 minutes that follow are…more or less everything that I felt need saying, but could never say nearly as eloquently.

I give up. He’s too good.

[Hat tip: Ken Opalo.]

Kilimo Salama: Crop Microinsurance For Dummies

Having weathered the microcredit boom and the microcredit bust, the development world is waking up to a simple realization: “wait a minute, since when is borrowing the only financial service?” Not a moment too soon, a Microinsurance and Microsavings boomlet is now under way.

Curbing our enthusiasm would probably be wise, if only because flavor-of-the-month interventions have such a long history of riding the unmeetable-expectation-to-bitter-disappointment cycle. But people do learn, and next generation Microfinance mechanisms are better designed, less hype-y and more scalable than what came before.

Crop insurance isn’t just about consumption smoothing: by protecting farmers’ ability to invest, it has a direct impact on incomes, too.

Take Kilimo Salama – the Syngenta Foundation’s ingenious marketing mechanism to sell crop insurance through the established agricultural input market.

Instead of expecting farmers to buy index crop insurance as a separate, stand-alone product – which, experience shows, they won’t – Syngenta Foundation will sell you a seed-and-insurance bundle (or, for a lower cost, a fertilizer-and-insurance bundle). Then, if it doesn’t rain in your area, you’re automatically paid a benefit, directly to your mobile phone via M-PESA.

By piggybacking on the transaction-cost-busting capabilities of mobile payments and linking payments to the weather as measured by automated, unmanned weather stations, Kilimo Salama makes insurance affordable in a way it never had been before. It brings paperwork down to basically zero, and enables farmers to experiment with higher yielding hybrids (which, again, are not genetically modified) at an acceptable level of risk.

Crucially, farmers pay just half of the insurance premium (which is tacked on to the price of the seed); Syngenta Foundation picks up the other half. This is important because some researchers have come to the conclusion that demand for crop insurance by smallholders often falls to zero if they’re expected to bear the full cost of the premium.

But there’s a twist: this cost sharing aspect is not a donor subsidy. Here’s why.

Continue reading Kilimo Salama: Crop Microinsurance For Dummies

One Acre Fund: The (Green) Revolution will be Randomized

One Acre Fund is that rarest of gems: a development initiative that truly gets it all the way through. The program is built on a commitment to understand the specifics of what it is that’s holding down the incomes of some of the world’s poorest people.

One Acre Fund is now involved in the Mother of All Randomized Controlled Trials

For very-small-scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, the answer isn’t really mysterious: people farm using crummy seed, no fertilizer and outdated techniques, and so yields suck.

How you go about addressing this makes all the difference. And One Acre Fund got the memo: when something genuinely helps people overcome poverty, they’re glad to shell out the money to pay for it.

This social enterprise model, where the project sets out to cover its own costs through payments made by participants, creates a subtle but profound shift in the way power flows through the organization.

It’s easy to by cynical, but One Acre Fund’s promise that its recipients are “the boss” isn’t just verbiage. The people who pay the bills are always the boss. Organizations evolve to serve the interests of the people who pay the bills.

This isn’t some fresh new insight. Everybody already knows that in traditional donor-funded interventions, feedback loops connecting recipients to donors are broken, ensuring all the power and most of the attention flow back to the donor.

It just takes some creativity to stand that equation on its head, getting beyond the verbiage of project ownership and aligning the ambition with the cold financial facts on the ground.

Continue reading One Acre Fund: The (Green) Revolution will be Randomized

DfID Gets the Memo

Say what you will about David Cameron, but for a government bent on slashing domestic spending across the board, having ring-fenced DFID’s Overseas Development Aid budget for protection takes real guts.

But it’s not the “how much”; it’s the “what on”. DFID is moving in a decidedly Boring direction: tripling the portion of aid that goes to private sector development over the next three years. The move includes direct investments into companies carrying out projects with high development impact, which is the sort of thing we really need to see more of.

DFID’s budget is still not quite up to the (probably never realistic for big countries) 0.7% of GDP ODA budget, but at 0.56% it’s within spitting distance. Just as important, that number grew even through the recent, long, harrowing recession.

With more of a bigger budget moving into increasingly boring areas, I think we can give Duncan Green a clear answer: yes, the British development bubble is a good thing. 

Roads before bros

How can you tell that real development is happening in this picture? Easy: just note the total absence of smiling children.

Road building is hard, dusty, unglamorous work. It photographs horribly. I mean, seriously, try hitting up donors with that image. It just doesn’t work.

Road Building, in other words, is the original Boring Development agenda: the stuff development agencies used to do back in a halcyon age back before the bloat agenda hobbled pragmatic interventions proven to work.

While donors dither, African governments – who need little reminding how important roads are to development – are taking the lead. Africa is on a road-building frenzy to expand its existing, woefully inadequate primary road network tenfold by 2040. Better still, the region is catching up not just in terms of asphalt, but also in terms of the “soft infrastructure” of road development: the institutional mechanisms that make roads useful and sustain a maintenance mindset:

Continue reading Roads before bros

“Hybrid? You mean like a Prius!?” The Boringest Development

Hybrid Seed is the boringest of all development interventions. You can sense people from Tampa to Timbuktu dozing off the second you bring it up. Hybrid seed is so boring, it’s basically fallen out of our collective consciousness. Just yesterday, a commenter here was accusing me of championing GMOs because I wrote something nice about hybrids!

When they were first introduced in America, way back in the 1930s, hybrid seeds set off a kind of productivity earthquake.

So, back to basics: Hybrid Seed has nothing to do with GMOs. Arguably the greatest triumph of turn-of-the-(last)-century agri-science, hybrid seeds are created by carefully controlling plant breeding processes to generate seed lines that are exceptionally productive and adapted to a given site’s soil, climate, and pest conditions.

It’s the sort of plodding, old fashioned biotech that was already old news by the time your grandpa was in high school. And yet, deeply un-newsworthy as the technique is, Hybrid Seeds – coupled with very small amounts of fertilizer – can more than double smallholder yields literally from one planting season to the next. (We have the RCTs to prove it, too.) Hey, they don’t call it the Green Revolution for nothing.

When they were first introduced in America, way back in the 1930s, hybrid seeds set off a kind of productivity earthquake. Within a decade of introduction, farmers who had been stuck harvesting maybe 700 or 900 kg. of grain per hectare for the last umpteen generations were bringing in harvests at 3, 4, even 5 and 6 tonnes per hectare.

This video (tellingly, the best explanation I could find on YouTube was made 23 years ago) tells the story well:

Hybrid seed is such old news, they’re sort of invisible. We all know that the new trendy thing to worry about is transgenic seed, and we will not be denied a good fight about that.

And yet for most of the Bottom Billion, the almighty rumble over transgenics is largely beside the point. GMOs are what you want if you’re harvesting 8 tonnes of maize per Hectare and you want to harvest 10.

But if you’re using grain you saved last year for seed and harvesting 750 kg. in a hectare and you need to triple that quickly so your family can eat all year, that’s an entirely academic discussion.

As a solution to the problems of the bottom billion, hybrid seed is perfectly obvious. It just happens to be a boring solution, so vast swathes of the development community sort of forgot about it.

The world’s poorest farmers are one biotech revolution behind. The techniques it takes to develop hybrid seed lines are old hat in the West, but go to Mali, or Burundi or Nepal and you’ll find national agricultural research institutes that barely have the resources to create new high quality hybrid lines. When new diseases arise, speed in creating and propagating a resistant new hybrid is of the essence, but where agricultural research institutions and regulatory agencies are weak, understaffed, corrupt (or all three), key processes can be horrendously slow.

More worrying still, the market links that take seed out of the lab and into the field are often buggy. For every Josephine Okot marketing high quality hybrids to Ugandan smallholders, there are three hucksters getting rich selling fake “hybrid” seeds that are no such thing.

The challenges to getting the right seed to the right farmer aren’t small, and they aren’t to be underestimated. But deep down, we’re still talking 1930s biotech. The problem is far from insoluble. It’s just a matter to getting down to business and doing it.

Hoes before Bros

Walk through any African village and the one thing you will see in virtually every farming home is a short hoe.

They’re not there because a Western NGO distributed them. They weren’t thought up by a hotshot industrial designer in a cool loft in New York or Barcelona or Berlin. They’re mostly made by local ironsmiths using technology that would’ve been familiar to someone doing the same job 500 years ago. And yet, everybody has one.


Because the hand hoe is the Swiss Army Knife of the African farm.   Continue reading Hoes before Bros

I♥︎CARDA: Why Low-Tech Biotech Matters

God I love this video. In part, it’s great to see a development organization investing in proper production values for a Boring Development initiative – though the 154 view count on YouTube suggests it may be just a bit too boring to do the trick.

Mostly, though, because the yellow rust resistant wheat story gets to the heart of what the Aid Enterprise should be about: leveraging the knowledge-intensive capabilities that really are in short supply in developing countries to generate interventions that show up right in the poorest people’s bottom line: their income.

But I also like it because it demystifies “biotech” in a development context. Because people have strong – and often negative – reactions to the idea that biotech is a key to development. The tendency is to immediately think of GM-crops. Suddenly, it’s “controversial” and you find yourself in the middle of an ideologically fraught debate.

But GM is a distraction. Often, the most valuable biotech in a development context is kinda low-tech.

Continue reading I♥︎CARDA: Why Low-Tech Biotech Matters