WESTBURY, New York — TechnoServe works to reduce global poverty by helping smallholder farmers and entrepreneurs create viable businesses by connecting them to “information, capital and markets,” according to the non-profit’s website. Smallholder farming — operations of less than 5 acres in size — make up roughly 75% of agricultural production and more than 75% of employment in East Africa, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. But smallholder contributions — and agriculture in general — remain limited in the region. Plans to use agricultural development to eradicate poverty for smallholder farmers have been in the works for decades. But TechnoServe says it is offering something new by partnering with local farmers, providing access to capital as well as connections to more reliable and profitable markets.
Seeing a Need
TechnoServe was founded on the idea that everyone deserves the opportunity to build a better future. Businessman Ed Bullard started the organization in 1968 after discovering the gap that often exists between hard work and talent among the people of Ghana during the time he lived there, and how it affected Ghanaians’ ability to earn a good income.
The group has since expanded to nearly 30 countries, leveraging the power of business and markets to create sustainable pathways out of poverty. The group also has worked to help build regenerative farms, businesses and markets — all designed to increase income.
By applying a business approach with deep knowledge of local context, TechnoServe endeavors to employ detailed market analysis identifying opportunities where local farmers and businesses might benefit from sustainable economic growth.
Learning and Adapting
TechnoServe works across entire markets to make them more environmentally, socially and commercially sustainable, according to Rebecca Regan-Sachs, the group’s communications director. TechnoServe typically works with businesses on sourcing practices, helping them establish long-lasting, equitable buying relationships with small-scale producers.
“So for instance, say you’re a smallholder coffee farmer in East Africa, selling coffee in your local market,” Regan-Sachs told The Borgen Project. “You’re earning enough to get by, but not enough to improve your standard of living or opportunities for your children.”
TechnoServe’s approach to helping smallholder farmers improve income starts by training those very farmers in growing techniques intended to maximize both quality and commercial crop yields. Then the group might help coffee farmers create or join a cooperative, pooling capital and knowledge to enable equipment purchases that can further improve crop yields, like with a coffee wet mill.
Buyers who like specialty coffee roasters are now interested in this high-quality, well-processed coffee, and buyers pay farmers top dollar for their crops on a regular basis. “Then farmers have enough money to send their children to school,” Regan-Sachs said. “To buy health care. To improve their diet. To expand their house. They can build their own pathway to a better future.”
Similarly, TechnoServe helps small business owners create market connections that could ultimately grow their enterprises and help these entrepreneurs escape poverty. TechnoServe doesn’t consider its work successful, Regan-Sachs says, unless the progress continues long after the organization leaves.
Innovative Projects and Technology
One project TechnoServe proudly calls a “win-win” approach is “Project Nurture,” tackling how to raise income for thousands of East African fruit farmers struggling to earn enough money from their crops.
A lot of fruit juice is sold in Africa, Regan-Sachs said, but much of the fruit for that juice is sourced from abroad. While East Africa is full of mangoes and passion fruit, not enough local farmers can meet juice processing quality standards, or even know how to connect to those supply chains in the first place.
In response, TechnoServe trained more than 50,000 smallholder farmers to improve the quality and yields of their fruit. They then worked with exporters, processors and bottling companies to start buying fruit from these farmers, finally linking this work to one of the biggest markets in all of Africa: the one controlled by Coca-Cola.
The company tapped into this improved supply chain to produce its first locally sourced fruit drink in East Africa. The puree was so good, Regan-Sachs said, it was used to make juice in six additional African countries. Coca-Cola has now built on this foundation to dramatically expand its local sourcing efforts in Africa. “As you can imagine, this new, reliable, scaled-up market was transformative for these smallholder fruit farmers,” Regan-Sachs said. “Their incomes increased by an average of 142%, and these new skills and market connections will enable many to leave poverty behind for good.”
TechnoServe’s entrepreneurship work takes a similar approach to ensure lasting impact. The “Beyond Extraction” project in Latin America, for instance, helped improve skills and market opportunities for small business owners in mining communities, ensuring durable progress by improving the larger market system.
They also integrate innovative technology, like using machine learning for large-scale data challenges. For instance, with the coronavirus pandemic accelerating a shift to digital programming, TechnoServe assesses effectiveness by measuring engagement among hundreds of teams using communications software like WhatsApp for training through what it describes as artificial intelligence/neurolinguistic programming sentiment analysis — a sort of opinion mining.
TechnoServe also uses management and geospatial technologies to combine remote sensing technology with directly observed data, enabling policymakers to make better decisions and improve their ability to target training and other resources. For example, TechnoServe now uses a supervised machine learning algorithm to create a map of areas under cashew cultivation in Benin, which is expected to more efficiently target farms needing training support.
By creating an analysis model to assess the quality of coffee cherries, TechnoServe also can improve efficiency that could ultimately benefit smallholder farmers. Its smartphone application designed to project such a model is expected to undergo initial piloting this fall with the Ethiopian coffee harvest.
The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Future
While the pandemic disrupted work for TechnoServe — as it did most of the world — Regan-Sachs says the nonprofit adapted in-person training sessions to a socially distant environment while remaining grounded in rapidly evolving local needs. “We had to help our clients move to a kind of ‘crisis mode,’ quickly adapting their businesses and farms to market shifts, finding ways to continue operations amid travel and supply restrictions,” she said. “It was like our regular work helping clients build income and resilience, but times 10.”
As the year finishes out, TechnoServe expects to sharpen its focus on the effects of changing weather patterns — which disproportionately affects people living in poverty, especially farmers. And as the organization continues to scale up, Regan-Sachs says many more projects and partnerships are expected to be a part of TechnoServe’s near future.
– Andre Silva