Summer Internship Africa

Lessons from One Acre Fund

I worked in Western Kenya for two years with a team that developed an organization and delivery model to provide safe water services on a national scale through excellent local distribution.  We faced many challenges and internal debates about the best way to provide these services and build a high-functioning organization.

And whenever we did, our first question was always, “Well, what does One Acre Fund do?”  We were lucky enough to be located near the OAF headquarters in rural Kenya, and we often looked to this organization for ideas for delivering services effectively while also driving growth and fostering a culture of creativity.

Debates in international development are too often dominated by cynicism and suggestions of failure, with the battles between Jeff Sachs and Bill Easterly splashed across major newspapers and bestsellers proclaiming that Aid is Dead.  Yet in the midst of all of that, One Acre Fund has managed to transform the social enterprise sector in Kenya and make all of these debates about whether to provide foreign assistance seem narrow and irrelevant.  Here are a few things that I learned:

(1) Failure is inevitable, so you should embrace it

In its early years, OAF tried a number of ideas that didn’t work so well, but they also tried some ideas that transformed their approach to serving small-scale farmers.  They realized that this process of trial and error was essential to improving their product, so they built it into their core program.

Most new management hires start in the innovations group, where they are given a new product or service for experimentation.  These new staff members learn to conduct rigorous small-scale trials to understand the potential of the product and make recommendations about whether to integrate it into regular operations.  This allows them to understand the complexities of products like crop insurance, the potential for bundling child health and solar lighting services with regular services, and the demand for new types of crops and seed.  This model allows them to fail fast and understand why when investigating new products.

This concept is also exciting for new staff members – they are able to take ownership of a significant project almost immediately and learn the skills necessary to lead large-scale operations in a controlled environment.  The leadership team ensures that these trials are conducted in a data-driven manner and use the opportunity to provide valuable training and assess where the new staff member may need additional support.

(2) Make innovators interact with customers regularly

One Acre Fund requires that managers regularly conduct site visits to understand how the programs are working.  Too often, the temptation is to delegate in-person interactions with customers to the sales team and spend the majority of time trouble-shooting problems as they arise at headquarters.  But OAF finds that the best way to spur creativity is to have all team members understand the constraints faced by customers and work to address them.

This is similar to the Lean Startup methodology used by tech companies to iterate and improve on product function and build products that meet the customer’s needs.  Team members use feedback directly from customers to improve their innovation trials.  Ideas for maize storage facilities and new crop bundles come directly from the consumer, which signals to the team that there will be a demand and a market for this product.

One Acre Fund makes such a strong commitment to this concept that it designed the organization around it.  The organization is based in rural Kenya, where staff members are surrounded by smallholder farmers.  Rather than stationing leadership in Nairobi or the US, leaders live and work as a member of the community that they serve.  And because of this, a client-facing spirit of innovation is built into the core of the organization.

(3) Choose wisely when hiring

Human capital is a significant constraint to fast-growing organizations – there is a temptation to hire and expand as quickly as possible.  But One Acre Fund paces its growth by the rate at which it can find truly top-notch people to lead these efforts. Teams that fail to do this often find that they must spend far more time training and ultimately firing many of the people that were hired in this period of expansion, which causes disruptions and problems within the organization.

OAF conducts in-depth interviews to understand how applicants will contribute to the team and use management consulting case interviews to assess their ability to handle situations with uncertainty.  Before the organization makes a job offer, prospects visit Kenya, where they are assessed by the entire team.  Applicants are asked to work on projects while there, and the management team evaluate performance.  Because of the rigor of the interview process, the organization understands exactly who they’re hiring before making an offer – this minimizes the potential for surprises and creates a leadership team that will work hard to drive growth and improve performance.

(4) Targets are essential

One Acre Fund is built around the idea that goals and regular feedback are critical to program delivery.  This is such an important concept that it’ll be a stand-alone post at some point in the future.

One Acre Fund is a leader in this space because of its intentional approach to service delivery, innovation, and growth, and I was lucky to have the opportunity to watch that amazing group in action and learn from its success.

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