Supporting Rural Communities, One Acre at a Time: An Interview with Margaret Vernon

Name: Margaret Vernon

Affiliation: One Acre Fund (OAF), General Partner, Director of Operations, Rwanda, and Co-founder

Location: Rwanda

Bio: Margaret graduated from Georgetown University‘s School of Foreign Service, where she was a Managing Editor for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and setter for the women’s volleyball team. She served in Burkina Faso with the Peace Corps from 2005 – 2007, working in public health, water and sanitation, and microfinance. Margaret joined One Acre Fund in January, 2008.

Photo Credit: OAF

How do you think One Acre Fund’s model differs from those followed by other organizations with the goal of reducing poverty? What are the “business principles” that guide OAF’s efforts?

One Acre Fund serves smallholder farmers directly by providing the basic tools that they need to increase their incomes: local access to inputs, agricultural education, credit (financing for agricultural inputs), and storage tools.  This is a comprehensive package that generates more income for the very poor.  With this spending power, farmers can choose for themselves how to improve their lives.  Some opt to spend more on education for their children or health for their family, some choose to improve their homes, while others invest in a small business.

This service package is not a handout.  Our clients are intensely interested in improving their lives themselves, and we simply help them make sound investments.  We operate on a non-profit business model with the goal of recuperating 100 percent of our field costs, but without further lucrative objectives.  Achieving this financial sustainability will allow us to continue to serve farmers for many years to come.

When you first begin work in a new community, how do you reach out to farmers and convince them to follow your model? Are you ever met with reluctance or hesitation? How does OAF deal with these problems?

When we begin work in a new community, we simply explain our services clearly and then let farmers decide whether or not to join.  We speak with local leaders first, and then we hold community meetings to ensure that our program (our services, our prices, and our methods) are communicated well.  Farmers elect to join the program if they feel that they can benefit from our services.  It’s natural to encounter some reluctance – especially because the program isn’t free – but this fades over time.  Usually we start with about 100 early adopters in a village, and that number grows season after season as trust in One Acre Fund builds.

Can you describe OAF’s Key Performance Indicators, and how they have contributed to OAF’s success thus far?

Performance management is crucial to ensuring that we serve many farmers well.  We set very large goals for scale, sustainability, and service, and then we use weekly performance indicators to monitor our progress towards these goals.  Everyone sees these indicators and knows, at any given point, the status of the entire program and how each staff member is performing.  These weekly indicators help our leaders motivate their teams, monitor staff performance, and provide targeted assistance.  The insight that Key Performance Indicators provide has been invaluable in achieving growth (we currently serve over 76,000 farmers in East Africa), our repayment collection (over 98 percent), and our service to farmers (sustainable agricultural trainings, in-field support, etc.).

Has OAF ever failed to meet its goals in any community? If so, how did staff members apply the lessons they learned from that experience to future endeavors?

The One Acre Fund staff is tight-knit and supportive, and everyone is dedicated to constant improvement.  Staff members exchange advice and strategies regularly, and when one member is struggling, others help out.  By addressing problems early in this way, we’ve managed to prevent any major failures.  Of course, in any endeavor there are mistakes or setbacks, but we see these as learning opportunities. Our program gets better every season thanks to small improvements that we derive from these lessons.

You’re the director of operations for OAF in Rwanda, a country that endured a horrific genocide in 1994. Much of OAF’s model is designed on building mutual trust and fostering cooperation between local farmers. How does OAF deal with the legacy of the atrocities that occurred there just 16 years ago?

The genocide in Rwanda was unimaginably horrific, but the country is working hard to move forward in many ways.  The economic development of Rwanda over the last decade has been impressive, and we are helping smallholder farmers make similar progress through agriculture. The group dynamics of our work – among both farmers and staff – has generated a true sense of family among everyone touched by One Acre Fund.  I think this sense of community helps us focus on what we can build together, rather than contemplate on the past. We’re all working toward the same vision of a prosperous, peaceful country.

To read more about the One Acre Fund, see: One Acre Fund: Serving Rural Smallholder Farmers, Gilbert and Edith Dream of the Future, and What works: Increasing Food Sovereignty.

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