Guest Post by Michelle K. of The Harvest Fund
Do you think New Year’s resolutions make a difference? If not, then keep reading.
6 years ago in January 2014, my colleague and good friend Richa and I made a New Year’s resolution to apply to the TechnoServe fellows program. For two DC-based management consultants seeking more meaning, the program seemed perfect for us because it promised an opportunity to use our skills to change the lives of those living in poverty. After work, we gathered in empty conference rooms to draft our application essays. Despite being on a project that required weekly air travel and 70+ hour workweeks, I finally submitted my application, interviewed with two southern Africa TechnoServe employees, and accepted an offer to become a fellow in TechnoServe’s Zambia office. During this time, my husband was also offered a career-changing opportunity in Seattle, WA. A few days after a 5000 kilometer cross-country drive from Washington, DC to Seattle, WA, I hesitantly boarded a plane from Seattle to Lusaka. Let’s just say 2014 was an incredibly harried year for the both of us.
I had every intent to return to my management consulting career after my stint in Zambia, but I fell in love with the complexity of agriculture. It had the power to alleviate extreme poverty while generating a stable food supply for a burgeoning global population. Finally, I had found my passion and life would be perfect, right?! Wrong.
In July 2018, I lost my job under an unbelievable set of circumstances. I applied to hundreds of jobs, networked with the top people at organizations, built a powerful online portfolio…yet, no job. How could that be? I lived in San Francisco during the middle of a booming economy, had an MBA from an Ivy League University, and, yet, was struggling to get work. Every minute of my existence challenged my self worth and left me severely depressed.
In January 2019, my mentor and former boss, Luke Potter, was tragically killed in a terrorist attack. He was the one who gave me the TechnoServe offer to move to Zambia and a subsequent number of career-boosting opportunities. I could imagine exactly what he was doing while he was gunned down by terrorists: meeting with a business partner in a hotel lobby, attempting to forge a partnership that would improve the agricultural economy in a low-income country. He was 40.
After reflecting on Luke’s death, wondering about the meaning of life, and completing a series of meditations by The Honest Guys, I thought: if no organization is going to give me the opportunity to make an impact on this world and learn, then I’m going to do it on my own. That moment of reality literally sowed the seeds for The Harvest Fund.
The past decade of a thriving business and tech economy generated a good bit of savings for me and my husband. Yet, I kept wondering why the rich kept getting richer and the poor kept getting poorer. When we started The Harvest Fund, we realized the “fund” part could serve as an endowment where we could leverage capital market gains to fund the operations of The Harvest Fund’s programs. Because of our lean startup model, approximately 90% of our budget goes directly to the Zambian economy with 75% going directly to agricultural innovations that serve our beneficiaries, who are women that live on approximately $1-$3 per day. The Harvest Fund’s model truly bridges the gap between the world’s richest and poorest.
In the five years since I transitioned my career to agricultural development, I saw many missing links in traditional donor-funded programming. I saw opportunities for incentive-based behavioral change, wider adoption of agricultural innovations, and women’s empowerment in agriculture. Unfortunately, decades of donor-based aid has resulted in a skewed dependency mindset. While The Harvest Fund offers several free services, we promote a program that rewards talented and intelligent – yet disadvantaged – female farmers with these services. We do this through the recruitment of women’s farming cooperatives (groups of individuals farmers) into our program through a competitive pitch competition. We select cooperatives based on 8 key criteria including but not limited to: problem solving ability, creativity, and resilience to setbacks. During our initial selection process in September 2019, we were utterly impressed by the ideas of the women farmers, making it incredibly difficult to select a winner. However, it left my business partner, Ackson, and I completely inspired because we truly realized that being poor does not limit one’s ability to be ingenious, spirited, or creative. With the right opportunities and tools, one can overcome poverty.
The two groups that we selected (one for the rainy season, and another for the dry season) undergo an intense maize bootcamp intended to boost their yields and, thus, their incomes. We then incentivize them to adjust their behaviors to (1) enroll in mobile savings programs and (2) store their harvests. This encourages them to save their profits automatically to reduce their dependency on The Harvest Fund.
Additionally, storing their harvests allows the farmers to sell when prices are high, rather than immediately after harvest when maize floods the market and prices drop. After the farmers demonstrate behavior changes, they are rewarded with agricultural productivity-enhancing innovations that will increase their yields, such as (1) solar-powered water pumps to allow them to farm year-round (2) reusable “mini silos” for grain storage to allow women to preserve their grain without the use of preservatives and insecticides, and (3) on-site soil testing and custom fertilizer that will increase their yields multifold. All of these are sustainable climate-friendly solutions that (1) utilize solar energy rather than diesel for water pumping (2) reduce the dependency on single-use plastic grain bags and (3) promote healthy soils which is much better for climate change.
Our female farmers live on approximately $1-$3 per day. We project that within a period of 18 months, their incomes will increase 5X thereby enabling them to escape extreme poverty.
As the women’s incomes increase, we continuously emphasize the importance of education – particularly for their daughters – and help them financially plan to send their children to school.
As an Indian-American, I am all too familiar with the biased gender standards prevalent in South Asian society. However, I find that Zambian women of all income classes are relatively more empowered and resilient. Gender-based violence certainly exists and we hope to expand The Harvest Fund’s programming to include modules on self-esteem, gender-based violence, sexual reproductive health, and sustainable solutions to menstrual products (I’m a Thinx user, after all).
Michelle currently resides in San Francisco with her husband. They enjoy exploring the world, eating delicious food, reading thought-provoking books, and having inspirational conversation.
Learn more about The Harvest Fund at www.theharvestfund.org and follow us on Instagram at @theharvestfund to stay up to date on global food security issues, the need for women’s empowerment, and inspirational stories of the kindness and strength of women who live on $1 a day.