Full bellies: Program created by NU alumni helps African farmers

The origin story for a top international charity begins at Northwestern University, and the director returned to campus on April 23 to talk about the organization’s successes and challenges as a part of the One Book One Northwestern series.

Matt Forti, NU alumnus and director of One Acre Fund, explains how the program teaches African farmers to plant correctly to four volunteers from the audience in Evanston. Photo by Jennifer Draper.

Matt Forti, NU alumnus and director of One Acre Fund, explains how the program teaches African farmers to plant correctly to volunteers from the audience. Photo by Jennifer Draper.

“This really is a very special moment for me,” One Acre Fund Director Matt Forti said. “This is the first chance for me to come back now—I think I was calculating 18 years—after I first stepped on this campus to really recognize and thank the community that made One Acre Fund happen.”

One Acre Fund is ranked 18 out of 100 of the world’s leading non-governmental organizations last year, according to The Global Journal. It aims to help smallholder farmers in Africa maximize the amount of food produced per acre of land, in an effort to provide hunger relief and economic stability.

“They’ve been able to work with these farmers and on average doubled their income from their farming activities, which is a remarkable story,” said Bryan Hanson, interim director of the Buffet Center for International and Comparative Studies.

Since the program’s launch in 2006 by Forti’s classmate at the Kellogg School of Management, Andrew Youn, One Acre Fund has served 80,000 farmers in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.

“I think one of the reasons for One Acre’s great success has been this commitment to continuing to ask the hard questions and come up with new, innovative answers,” Hanson said.

Malnutrition makes farming families stuck in inter-generational cycles of poverty, Forti said. During the “hunger season,” or months where food supply is low or non-existent, families routinely skip meals or rely on a maize-porridge mixture.

“In the places that we work, one in 10 children are dying before the age of five,” the One Acre Fund director said. “And if you survive, you’re almost half as likely to have some form of stunting.”

Poverty in Africa is a rural phenomenon, specifically a farming phenomenon. Most of the world’s poor are farmers, Forti said, adding: “This shouldn’t happen in the 21st century, given the vast amounts of food that are in the world.”

How can these families get the same yields as farmers with more land?

“The hopeful part is that one acre of land actually is enough to grow enough food to feed a family,” Forti said. “And it is enough also to have a little bit of surplus food to sell into the markets, to spend on things like education, healthcare and to make other investments to get their family out of poverty.”

The task is to show struggling farmers new planting techniques. Aside from proper training, One Acre Fund’s program model also provides financial loans for seed and fertilizer, a delivery service within walking distance and enables farmers to access markets for higher harvest sales. As a result, a farm’s income grows by 50-100 percent per planted acre, Forti said.

Within three years, One Acre Fund may represent Africa’s largest network of smallholder farmers. By 2020, the program expects to reach 1 million farm families, with more than 5 million people living in those families, according to the One Acre Fund website.

Yet it almost didn’t happen.

Without the initial financial backing from Forti and Youn’s classmates, the organization would never have taken off like it did. Forti said 95 percent of the Kellogg students that first signed up are still giving today.

“Truly, truly, Northwestern is to thank for what we have today,” he said.

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