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the porous city - one acre fund

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"The reality is that there has not yet been a controlled trial on the impact of the standard microfinance product a small loan given to a group of women who meet together weekly for repayment. Put another way, all of the above-mentioned 'received facts' about what is accomplished by giving people access to small lines of credit have been based on anecdote. The reality is that no one knows what impact, if any, micro-credit has on the lives of the poor."

What IPA is trying to do here is important. There are a lot of caveats that need to be applied here, please don't look at these results as definitive. The nature of the question being asked - "what is the impact of micro-credit on the lives of the poor?" - requires studies across multiple implementations and environments.

For example: "Take-up of micro-loans was relatively low at 17.5 percent among the sample this raises a question about whether demand is in fact as high as policy makers and lenders claim, or if there are other countervailing dynamics in play, such as risk aversion." Or, maybe the program was poorly marketed?

Or: "Loan-takers also spend more on home-based durable goods." Would this effect last if the observation was continued over multiple loan cycles, or was this a one-time "stocking up"?

But their final conclusion in this write-up, "we really know almost nothing about the real impact of micro-credit and how or whether it works," is certainly correct. Everyone who is interested in micro-credit and development should spend some time thinking about how difficult it can be to measure results.

The focus of One Acre Fund is different. While extending credit is core to the program, market access and training are just as important. The impact of programs that provide a business model as well as credit will have to be studied separately.

I'm going some volunteer research for One Acre Fund and this popped up. Interesting!

If I could tell you the number of times random people have mentioned rotating maize with legumes to fix nitrogen in the soil ... ugh.

Leaving One Acre Fund
On March 11th I leave One Acre Fund and fly from Nairobi to Frankfurt, on my way back to the USA.

It feels a little like leaving Microsoft in 1982 might have if you had an inkling of the future trajectory of the company. The core model in Kenya is much more mature than it was eighteen months ago: we now have three districts with 3,000 to 4,000 clients each, all generating performance numbers that in aggregate are steady and predictable. We have very promising trials underway to achieve better economies of scale and more impact for our clients. When I first got here it felt like building a car - suspension, frame, engine, speedometer and steering wheel - while the car was already on the road. Now it feels like we have the platform and we're tuning for performance. We have incredibly ambitious growth targets (seriously. ambitious.) and I believe we'll reach them.

So it's obvious I have mixed feelings about this. But when I brought up the subject of leaving with our executive director in October, I mentioned that I've been overseas for two years, and working in operations management for, now, eighteen months. I've got a better idea of what I want in life, and it involves building a life closer to family and friends, and going back to a career with a heavier analytical component. One Acre Fund's strength is a laser focus on field results, which means living here and staying devoted to implementation. There are a lot of people that are happiest doing exactly that (did I mention how rewarding it is to see a good harvest?) so I'm not worried about One Acre.

It's not the end of my work on behalf of One Acre Fund, either. I'll be fundraising, blogging about their progress and in general not shutting up about it whenever the conversation turns to development. I'll also be doing some volunteer country scouting if the timing works out.

The next set of opportunities is looking exciting too, though. More later.

"We know what brings about a transformation of opportunities and it is not this."
A critique of, well, exactly what I'm doing.
The poverty of African peasants is not accidental: it is intrinsic to the peasant mode of economic organization. The very features that make the peasant mode of production appear attractive to jaded members of an industrialized society also make it unproductive. Large scale organization of specialized production, and integration into markets, are fundamental to the generation of income at a level that we now regard as necessary for a decent quality of life. We have been blinded to this evident fact by our own romantic attachment to the preservation of a society which is the antithesis of the modern.
I don't disagree with any of it. But the structural changes he's talking about require a really farsighted agricultural and industrial policy, which is not on the horizon. They also, in order to produce better lives in the near term, rather than in the glorious future, require a careful migration path. For most farmers, land is their only real asset. How will they be recompensed, resettled, reintegrated? These questions aren't even being asked yet. So I think there is a place for efforts to improve farmers' incomes right now, before any grand plans take shape.

The GMO thing is a red herring, I think he throws it in for shock value. The real issue is the move to efficient, large-scale farming.

I was "interviewed" about One Acre Fund by members of the Global Swadeshi development forum. Very bright people with great questions, check it out.

The gender composition of our Bungoma East field staff
Field directors
Male symbol

Field managers
Male symbolFemale symbolMale symbolFemale symbol

Field officers
Male symbolFemale symbolMale symbolFemale symbolMale symbolFemale symbolMale symbolMale symbolMale symbolMale symbolMale symbolMale symbolMale symbolMale symbolMale symbolMale symbolMale symbolMale symbolMale symbolMale symbol

We're working on it.

Back to marketing
We're in the middle of repayment. Wait, let me back up. One Acre Fund gives loans to small farmers, in the form of seed (maize, in Kenya) and fertilizer. We give them training on how to use it, they plant, harvest, and pay us back in cash or maize.

So we're accepting cash repayment. We have about $200 in our budget to give incentives for the groups that finish repayment first. Patrick (Kenyan field director) and I are sitting around brainstorming ideas. It's hard, because you want to give them something of substance, that'll generate income over the long run, that a group of six to twelve farmers can practically share.

Pigs? Too expensive. Chickens? Tough to share, and how do you decide who gets the chicks, or income from eggs?

We land on trees. Tree seedlings are super cheap and can be harvested for firewood or sold as lumber. We figure out how we can pay to transport the tree seedlings to farmers, and still have enough in the budget to give each group 200 tree seedlings. We choose a tree that benefits soil fertility, isn't so thirsty that it's going to starve other crops for water, and can be harvested in 2-3 years.

We're pretty pleased with ourselves, and settle in for the Friday field managers meeting. We mention the incentive to them. They nod politely. We ask what they think. They look at each other, then look at us.

"It would be good if we could provide t-shirts," Vincent says.
"Sorry - farmers would rather have One Acre Fund t-shirts than 200 trees?"

The field managers nod vigorously.

... and what does that mean for small farmers?
Unpredictable weather has always presented serious problems for smallholder farmers and fishing communities in poor countries, but farming is becoming even more difficult and risky because of the greater unpredictability in seasonal rainfall patterns. Heat stress, lack of water at crucial times and pests and diseases are serious problems that climate change appears to be exacerbating. These all interact with ongoing pressures on land, soils and water resources that would exist regardless of climate change. The most common observation is that the changes are "shortening" the growing season.
We've seen these effects first-hand. The season of long rains has started 2-3 weeks late for the past couple of years, and rain during this crucial growing season has been more unpredictable.

Scylla and Charbydis ... and spelling
Intermittent updates to my Twitter feed are sucking up the energy that would go to blog posts. And energy reserves are not generally high, as I'm going through an exhausting learning process.

My management experience prior to joining One Acre was as a case team leader at Monitor Group. It was a little like playing traffic cop: everything was moving along fine on its own, I just had to make sure it was pointed in the right direction. A lot of young associates came in with some consulting experience already, and (although we never thought about this) everyone came from the same cultural background, making communication a cinch.

Our staff here are also bright and hard-working, but they have much less in common with me. So I've learned things like:
  • Avoiding abbreviated, idiomatic English
  • Delivering tools, training and feedback that are crystal clear
  • Ensuring timely data collection to get a birds-eye view of our progress
  • Getting plenty of time in the field, before and after rollout, to make sure I actually understand what's going on. Rolling out a new field initiative without testing it with a field officer first and getting their feedback is just asking for trouble.

Given the opportunities for miscommunication and the impressive things our staff are capable of, it's tempting to think that execution problems can just be put down to poor communication - but sometimes it just takes energy and drive to get staff to assign the proper importance to tasks. Either way, whether communication or motivation is the problem, it seems like the name of the game is management by persistence.

The part that relates to the title, if not the rest of the post
Oh, right. Scylla and Charbydis. Being dumb, it was only recently that I thought about that image as a narrative version of the Greek ideal of moderation. Clever chaps, the Greeks. Way to work that pattern into our thought. But also: where is this myth misleading? where does moderation fail, as an ideal?

Time-lapse video of fast-growing corn


Here's hoping we see some of this soon. Our farmers could really use some rain.

Some unscientific survey data about our farmers, Vol. 1
For about six months we've been running a survey on spending, income and food consumption. Thirty-two farmers around Bungoma, Kenya are using daily logbooks to record food spending and consumption in the household; a survey agent visits weekly to conduct an interview about non-food income and expenditure, and to swap out the old logbook for a new one.

We now have enough data to start asking interesting questions. I'm not a scientist and our numbers aren't statistically significant, but I'm comfortable asserting that these numbers are representative of the average family in our program. All averages of the data from the thirty-two families in the survey.

  • Household size: 6
  • Daily food spending: $1.10
  • Weekly income: $18.38 (biggest component: general handyman work, $5.86 a week)
  • Weekly non-food spending: $9.08

In terms of cash, the average member of these households is living on about forty-two cents a day. However, while our farmers have a surprisingly diverse set of income streams, their single biggest source of "income" is from the food they produce themselves. We've been running a food price survey in parallel with the expenditure log, so we can use the farmers' self-reported data on amount of food consumed from personal food stocks to calculate in-kind income (income from food sold shows up in the "weekly income" number above.)

  • Weekly in-kind income: $14.46
  • Weekly income, cash and in-kind: $32.84

So including in-kind income, people are living on about $.78 a day.

Some caveats: we expect large seasonal effects in income and expenditure, so these numbers will change as we get more data. (Big deal: we don't yet have income data from sale of farmers' maize harvests.) The first three months of the survey included only five farmers as we refined the survey format and the interview process.

Next up: some ugly Excel charts.

Kicking tires
  • Tomorrow: my second consecutive 8am meeting about motorcycle repairs. (Don't worry, mom, I'm running a mototaxi program for our field managers, not driving one myself.) These things are either prone to breakage, heavily used/abused, or our drivers are trying to skim off the top. So I'm going to start checking out bikes they're bringing in for repair myself.
  • Next week: I give a talk on a year-long income and expenditure survey we're conducting with over thirty of our farmers. We're having them record what they eat every day, and once a week a survey agent records what they earned and spent in different categories. Jake designed the survey before I took over the project, so I can't take credit for it. Or maybe I can try. Anyway, I'll post some of the summary results here.
  • Yesterday: an Ultimate game that no one was really satisfied with. The season of long rains (hopefully) started today, so future Ultimate games will probably be even sloppier.

I've already mentioned FrontlineSMS, but FrontlineForms is exciting enough that I'm going to look into what it would cost to outfit all of our field officers (or potentially just our field managers) with phones capable of doing this. Getting real-time data from the field would be tremendous.

Our data requirements are a little different than most MFIs. The kind of data that we're tracking changes depending on the time of year, and often week to week. (Depending on whether it's time for enrollment, land preparation, planting, etc.) So we might have a lot of different forms. We'd need a good auditing process - probably have field officers continue to record on paper forms as well, and compare the two. And the biggest hurdle: I'll have to convince our fearless leader that this would improve core program outcomes, and not just be a distraction.

But if there were ever a time to think boldly, it's now. Now let's see if I can get somewhere with this.

We just shipped a ton (literally) of soil samples to Nairobi to be be analyzed, covering about 150 of our farmers. I'm looking forward to seeing the results, which should tell us something about how to use fertilizer most effectively, as well as a bunch of other potential interventions. Soil fertility is a major issue around here. Most farmers don't have enough land to leave part of it fallow, so the land is gradually being leached of its nutrients, while the repeated use of chemical fertilizer tends to increase the acidity of the soil.

The challenge is how to intervene in a way that increases farmer income while also increasing sustainability. And the solution needs to be simple enough that we can quickly scale to serve thousands of people. It's the last part that's the most difficult: really customized solutions can work wonders, but at the cost of reducing the number of people you reach.

Some things that have happened, are happening, or might happen later
  • Irrigation kit sales have been so-so. 25% of the farmers that bought seed and fertilizer kits have gone on to buy irrigation kits (which cost four times as much, but then, what else were they planning to do with the seeds during the dry season?*) We'll continue sales for the next couple of weeks, we'll see how many of the farmers who have been saying "I'll have the money next week" will come through.
  • We had a party. Did you know that steel wool+fire+oxygen = decent fireworks?
  • Added some new projects to my list. So far I've been working on special projects - limited trials of possible changes to the core model. I'll still be working on them next year, but I'll also get some experience just running the core model.
  • A cat is being spayed outside my window. Erp, apparently it is (was?) pregnant.

*This is just me being frustrated. Our farmers have pretty chaotic lives, it can be hard for them to stick to plans - and we (originally) gave them a short time window in which to purchase kits.

Stealing other people's stories pt. XXV
Sean is here from the US, to do an MIT-affiliated study on the impact of One Acre on farmers' harvests. He was interviewing a local leader, who, when talk turned to the election, said:

"So, now that Obama has been elected, will you agree that Africa has finally started to colonize the Europeans?"

Questions
Took a boda-boda (bicycle taxi) from the office to my house. It's 10 shillings (about 13 cents), 15 if they go down the dirt track to my door. Almost all the boda-boda guys have the same kind of bike: imagine a depressing Soviet-era steel bicycle with a cushion over the back wheel, festooned with paint, streamers and slogans painted on the mudflaps. Everyone pedals at the same plodding pace, since they have one gear at some ridiculous gear ratio, suitable only for Olympic sprinters.

This boda-boda driver spoke English, which is unusual.

"Hey, brother. Hey."
"Yes?"
"How can I have an easy life?"
"Sorry?"
"How can I have an easy life? I have been given a hard life."

He laughed, grinned, and kept at his sad, slow pedalling. I don't think his smile was faked. It's amazing how happy people are here, despite everything.

Talked to one of our survey agents today about a baseline survey we do when we enroll farmers - a sort of census and inventory of assets. Apparently it's pretty quick and easy to go through with a farmer.

"They don't have problems with any of the questions?"
"No ... well, sometimes they can't remember the names of all their children."

The view from Kenya
Obama's family is from a town a few hours away. Today: Obama t-shirts, Obama songs, cheers and handshakes from passers-by. I visited one of our farmers and he and another farmer discussed the election results. A radio was on nearby, playing Obama's acceptance speech interspersed with commentary in Kibukusu (the local tribal language.)

They admired the smooth handover of power in American democracy. They complained that no one in Africa gives up power without a fight. They agreed that it's not good enough to have good projects, they must be implemented well, and worried about Obama's inexperience. However they agreed that Joe Biden, with his 35 years of experience, would be a good advisor for him.

The best story comes from Sid and Melissa, who back in September talked to their cab driver in Nairobi about the election. The normal stuff: he asked who they were going to vote for, they said Obama, he went off on a five minute speech about how great Obama is. Then he paused.

"But McCain is strong too!"

Saving this to read fully because I think it has a lot of relevance to my work. Organization-building is job number one here. The vast majority of One Acre's interactions with farmers are handled by Kenyan field officers. We live and die by the effectiveness of our field officers.

Back to earth
So I came up with what I thought was a clever solution to one problem. No amount of cleverness will save me on the irrigation project, however, if any of the following things go wrong:

  • Field officers do a poor job of delivering sales or training messages
  • Kit pre-work doesn't happen on time: delivering components, preparing 400 seed kits, cutting 800 irrigation hoses, punching holes in them exactly 45cm apart, and cutting 70,000 emitter tubes
  • Farmers can't come up with the money on time
  • Farmers prepare their seedbeds incorrectly, and their seeds fail to germinate
  • Repeatedly attaching and detaching the irrigation hoses from the jerry can causes the connection to weaken and leak water
  • The cloth filter fails and dirt clogs the emitter tubes
  • Farmers do a poor job of lofting the jerry can, and water doesn't travel all the way to the end of the hose

I'm trying to prepare training and plans to prevent this stuff, and backup plans to deal with it if it occurs. As you can tell I'm not comfortable with my progress. In the meantime I'm having weird food dreams. Last night I dreamt I was eating a hamburger and some people threatened to take it away from me. I pulled a gun on them.

Bragging
I had a good idea today. I'm responsible for our motorcycles program: we bought some motorcycles, and we're going to let some independent drivers rent them from us. They're also required to provide one free return trip to a One Acre Fund field manager each day.

Somebody else had the idea and did the profitability analysis. I'm not in love with it, but since it's mine now, I have to figure out whether the original rationale holds: is it reducing transportation costs for field managers?

Problem: how to get good data on usage? Drivers don't want to give free rides, but will probably say "of course I gave a field manager a ride today" anyway.

And for field managers ... frankly it's not that convenient. Each location only has a couple motorcycles, and drivers might be busy or have already given their free ride that day. But the field managers know they're supposed to use them, so they might just say "of course I used the One Acre motorcycle."

Solution: give vouchers, with random serial numbers, to the field managers. They give them to the drivers, and the drivers write their names on them and give them to One Acre when they're submitting fees. Barring a motodriver-field manager conspiracy, we'll know exactly how much field managers are using the bikes.

Getting back on the horse
Sorry about the lack of updates. Have been recuperating from some tropical flu (I'm fine, Mom, it wasn't anything serious.) Frustrating to have just gotten here and suddenly get sidelined; now I know how Greg Oden felt last season. Coffee'd up and sorting through the wreckage of my work plan.

While I was laid up, the boundary of my world was the One Acre place here in Bungoma. The other expats are friendly, thoughtful and fun to be around. However, the risks of the all-expat diet are becoming clear. If you spend all your free time with people, books and movies from home, you're inevitably going to get a pale imitation of a previous life. I'm still hoping for better than that.

Picked up one of our $5 irrigation kits yesterday - basically a plastic hose that connects to a jerry can, with little tubes to guide water to the plants. Hoping to sell a few hundred of these in time for farmers to plant during the dry season. Lots of little implementation questions remain - will farmers have an extra 20L jerry can around to actually get the water with? (the one provided with the kit will have a hole in it) Will farmers have a way to loft the jerry can enough to get water flowing? (probably - most will have a chair or something similar)

I don't have the field intuition yet to feel my way through these questions, but I'm glad to be enjoying the details. This week we roll out with a pilot location, so more to come.

Three Surprises
My first field visit was last Tuesday, to the Chola site. Jake (expat staff), Andrew, Moses (Kenyan staff) and I visited five farmers and handed out logbooks for them to record some of what they eat and buy. Limited trial to test the logbook format before we roll it out for real. We left the house before 9 and got back a little after 12.

The first surprise for me about Bungoma wasn't the size, it was the density. The main roads are a constant stream of bikes, trucks, and matatus (overstuffed minibuses.) Shops, markets and restaurants are crowded full. I figured boredom would be a problem, peace and quiet wouldn't. Guess again.

The second surprise came when Jake and I were walking between houses and he mentioned that a lot of our farmers don't do much during the day. I'd have expected people experiencing chronic hunger and the resulting health problems and infant mortality to be working themselves to the bone.

Then I remembered a line from the One Acre reference materials; paraphrased, "our farmers are not used to being rewarded for their effort." They lack capital for quality inputs (seed, fertilizer.) They lack the expertise to plant and harvest most effectively. And it's difficult for them to get their outputs to an interested buyer.

Those three basic things are what we offer to farmers, and are the reason One Acre Fund exists. And here's the third surprise: One Acre is close to sustainability. In fact, at current maize prices - which are, however, unusually high - farmers are paying back enough to cover our operational costs and then some.

Alright, there was a fourth surprise: field work is fun. Visiting farmers is better than frowning at a laptop. Speaking of ...

And go
Landed in Nairobi the night of the 13th. Up early the next morning for a bumpy eight-hour ride west to Eldoret; two hours by taxi later and I'm getting picked up in Bungoma by another expat staffer. Hellos, a trip to the grocery store, some unpacking, and by 6pm I'm crashing in my bed under a mosquito net.

We live in a little compound with three houses near the center of town; One Acre's been growing, so there's now another house just down the street. Don't let "compound" confuse you: it's nothing elaborate, there's barbed wire on one side but this is not your typical expat bunker. There is a dual-tank reserve water system that I spent some time learning about today. Playing house ...

Looking forward to later this afternoon when I find out what kinds of projects Andrew (founder) and Veronica (current Director of Program Innovation) have in mind for my first three months.

Where are you moving again?

View Larger Map

The blue marker is a town called Bungoma.

Joining One Acre Fund
This September I'm moving to Kenya to start a full-time job at One Acre Fund, a microfinance organization serving farmers in Kenya and Rwanda. I'm very, very excited.

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