23 October 2013

Can business solve Tanzania's agriculture problem

DSC_0275-e1380999665533-300x451Iringa, Tanzania - In center of this East African nation, two organizations are working with poor farmers to prove that business, rather than traditional aid, is the key to making sustainable gains out of poverty.

The idea is a popular one in the development community, and seemingly obvious, but moving from concept to reality has it challenges.

The government of Tanzania and foreign donors are intensely focused on improving food security. Two foreign firms, Cheetah Development and the One Acre Fund, are promoting market-based solutions to farmers that they contend are more productive and sustainable than charity or hand-outs.

It is worth noting, perhaps, that both are non-profit organizations that depend upon charity and donations in the West to catalyze their for-profit business solutions in Africa. But more important is that One Acre Fund is monitoring and evaluating its projects; Cheetah simply assumes if people buy-in to its small for-profit venture here, that's proof enough of its impact.

The two organizations are neighbors in Iringa, a small agricultural community in a very dry part of the country. The rains have not yet arrived and red dust coats the withered maize stalks.

Though located literally next door to each other, Cheetah and One Acre Fund take significantly different approaches to the needs of Tanzanian farmers. Cheetah takes a page from the business handbook, having launched a for-profit subsidiary that tracks sales of products - like its newly launched solar food drying system - to determine what is or is not working. One Acre Fund (OAF) offers loans, does farmer training and evaluates progress each step of the way.

The number of people reached by the two may reflect their respective tactics. Reservoir, a business under Cheetah that sells solar drying racks to farmers, has reached only 55 farmers so far this year. OAF worked with 1,150 farmers in the 2012 growing season, its first in Tanzania, and will enroll more than 3,000 for the upcoming planting season.

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