Is Feed the Future delivering results? Yes – with some limitations.

After participating in a Feed the Future loan program, Robai Nyongesa drastically increased her maize yield and is selling the surplus to improve the house she lives in with her three children. Photo credit: Feed the Future

ONE agriculture expert David Hong and Stephanie Hanson of One Acre Fund report on Feed the Future from Iringa, Tanzania. 

Robai Nyongesa, a smallholder farmer in western Kenya, used to struggle to grow enough maize to feed her family. Last year, she was able to harvest 20 bags of maize from 1 acre of land, a fivefold increase over her previous poor harvests. Her large harvest enabled her to feed her three children, and to hire a tutor to give her children private lessons at home.

Robai is part of the US government’s Feed the Future (FtF) initiative which seeks to ensure long-term food security by empowering smallholder farmers in the developing world.

FtF is fundamentally different than the emergency food aid the government has delivered for decades. In fact, FtF is the US government’s most cost-effective way to fight poverty and spur economic growth. Research has shown the agriculture sector is 3.2 times better than other sectors at reducing poverty among those who live on under $1 per day.

All of this sounds great, right? Well, it’s a lot easier said than done. For one, agriculture development takes a long time to show results. Farmers that adopt new technologies and practices face a learning curve and in many places only harvest once a year, which means it might take several years to master a new technique and achieve significant yield increases.

With that in mind, what kind of results has Feed the Future produced for farmers and rural communities?

- For the first time since its start in 2009, FtF reported overall poverty reduction rates and stunting reduction rates. Poverty rates dropped an average of 5.6 percent across focus countries between 2005 and 2011 and stunting decreased 6 percent between 2009 and 2011. While this progress stems from a myriad of factors including economic growth and domestic investments, FtF programs undoubtedly played an important role.

- Also for the first time, FtF reported results broken out by gender. Women farmers play a huge role in the food and nutrition security of their households. Most farmers are women, and all too often they are marginalized – even by aid agencies. FtF, in a move toward transparency, reported results broken out by gender. For example, the ratio of male to female farmers who have applied new technologies or management practices is 5:2. While an ideal ratio would be the opposite—2:5—reporting these results show a commitment to increasing the number of women who are reached by FtF programs.

- Finally, several individual countries demonstrated impressive results in the latest report. In Tanzania, 13,000 farmers had average yield increases of 46 percent between 2009 and 2012. In Ethiopia, agricultural growth was 7 percent between 2008 and 2011. One project in Rwanda, led by the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), increased farmer incomes nearly fivefold, albeit from a low base.

Given Feed the Future’s progress, what are the program’s limitations?

- Results are still not comprehensive enough. While many of the results indicators show substantial progress, FtF still hasn’t provided information on yield increases (or decreases) and income gains disaggregated by project and country.

– Agriculture development requires long-term funding commitments, and previous levels of funding are unlikely to continue. During the reporting period – especially between 2009 and 2012 – FtF benefited from the United States’ L’Aquila pledge to dramatically increase public resources for agricultural development. Final disbursements will be made soon, so unless new commitments are made, FtF programs won’t have the same level of funding to accomplish their goals.

With this fiscal reality in mind, it’s important for organizations like ONE and One Acre Fund to continue advocating for adequate levels of funding for Feed the Future. Robai, the farmer from western Kenya, is a member of One Acre Fund. She received seed and fertilizer, finance, training, and market facilitation from One Acre Fund that was funded by Feed the Future.

Smallholder farmers have incredible potential to increase their yields and help feed the world. But programs like Feed the Future need taxpayer funds to provide the support that millions of farmers and their families need to turn their farms into sustainable businesses. Agriculture development is the most efficient way to deploy taxpayer dollars to reduce global poverty. Let’s ensure the new FtF report galvanizes continued US investment in agriculture so that farmers like Robai are not only no longer hunger, but also growing food to feed their communities.

Read “A Growing Opportunity,” our report on measuring agriculture investments in Africa