On a small plot of farmland in Kenya's Nyanza province, Mary Martin begins working in the fields at dawn before she gets her children ready for school. Her husband died from AIDS in 2003, and since then she has taken care of their children, mud hut and corn farm on her own.
Last year, her fields yielded only one bag of maize, the worst harvest yet.
Eighty-five percent of the sub-Saharan poor live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for income, according to 2007 statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The World Bank estimated in 2004 that 41 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa live on less than $2 a day. They might own a little land, but lack of roads or other forms of transportation mean farmers have no access to proper seed, fertilizer, or a market to sell their produce, according to the aid agencies.
Business consultant Andrew Youn saw the extent of rural poverty when he traveled through Kenya in 2004 for a summer internship. In the United States, agricultural extension programs distribute improved farming materials and methods; there are no such programs in sub-Saharan Africa. Isolated from agricultural education, farming methods are a century out of date.
So Youn began building One Acre Fund with the goal of changing four basic tenants of farming practices -- education, capital, market access and insurance. His organization now works with 23,000 families, over 100,000 people, in Kenya and Rwanda, including Mary Martin.
The organization builds a network of farmers in groups of six to 12, and each group is led by a field officer. Field officers are nominated by members of their community, employed by the One Acre Fund, and trained in modern agricultural practices.
Where farmers used to till a whole field and scatter seed at random, the field officers teach farmers to plant straight rows and to properly space plants to produce a larger yield at the end of the season. This not only makes the best use of their limited space, but each planted seed has space to grow, increasing their chance of survival.
"It sounds simple -- plant straight rows, evenly space your plants," said Stephanie Hanson, director of policy and outreach for One Acre Fund. "But these are techniques that really had not reached farmers in Africa."
The field officers provide more than an education for farmers; they also are responsible for collecting payments and credit contracts for their farmers. One Acre Fund also provides loans to farmers participating in the program so they can purchase materials, such as improved commercial seed and environmentally sensitive fertilizer. Farmers have a full growing season to repay the loans with interest. The group received a Financial Times Sustainable Banking Award for this part of its program in June.
In addition, farmers get crop insurance through One Acre Fund, something they previously might not been able to afford.
And at the end of the season, farmers can participate in One Acre Fund's harvest buy-back program, for which the group pays 20 percent above-market price for their participants' crops and stores it for sale later in the season.
One Acre Fund estimates that their clients increase their income by US$100 to $120 in the program. The farmers use the money not only for their immediate needs but for buying livestock, for education, or savings, Hanson said.
In Martin's case, harvesting will begin in July, but her yield is expected to be three to four times that of last year, which is inspiring her neighbors to join, said Hanson.
"We expect to serve 50,000 families by next year," she said. "Our long-term goal is 1 million farmers by 2020 and we are on track to do that."
Revenue from farmers' repaid loans provide about $1.2 million, which is enough to cover 70 percent of One Acre Fund's field expenses -- paying staff, purchasing materials, crop storage, said Hanson. The group supplements this income with grants and donations. Youn's goal is for the company to be self-sustained by the farmers' revenues.