THE BLOG

Africa's Green Revolutionaries

06/07/2012 02:52 pm ET | Updated Aug 07, 2012

"I can now afford to send all my children to school," says Katerina Misalaba, a young woman from the village of Nyamsale, here in a remote part of Northwestern Tanzania. Katerina's children, like all children in Nyamasale and other African villages want nothing more than to attend school. They don't long for the latest release of Call of Duty or a pair of Nike Air Yeezy 2s. School is the greatest prize of all. And thanks to the new income earning opportunities afforded to Katerina's family by a small local Tanzanian cotton company called Shindika Group, Katerina is now able to send all eight of her children to school.

Can you imagine having so little money that you have to choose which of your children will receive a basic education? Sadly, that's the reality for the vast majority of rural families in Africa. Why does this inequity exist and what can be done to change it? How can we improve the livelihoods of rural families in Africa? That is a question that has bedeviled development experts for generations. And to date, their only answer appears to be foreign aid. In fact, just a few weeks ago, at the most recent G8 Summit at Camp David, President Obama and other G8 and African leaders announced a new $6 billion initiative to extend the Green Revolution to Africa.

According to Rajiv Shah, administrator of the US Government's foreign aid agency, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), "We're now putting together a fundamentally new approach to tackling hunger and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa." Shah said the initiative is a continuation of the Green Revolution of the 1970s and '80s, which saved countless lives in Latin American and Asian countries that were facing widespread starvation.

"The effort never made it to Africa, for a broad set of reasons," Shah said. "Private companies never really invested in Africa in this sector. Public partners abandoned Africa in this sector. And African leaders themselves stopped thinking of agriculture as the solution. This really represents a change in that mindset."

But just how "fundamentally new" is yet another big foreign aid initiative for Africa?

Perhaps the answer is not aid at all. Perhaps a better answer is good old-fashioned innovation from small, socially minded and locally based entrepreneurs: Africa's real green revolutionaries.

Approximately 75 percent of Africa's 1 billion people depend on agriculture for their survival. The majority of this population exist on less than a dollar per day. What tiny incomes they earn come exclusively from selling fruits and vegetables grown on small plots surrounding their homes. In rural Africa, agriculture IS the economy. And given this reality, the only meaningful way to improve rural livelihoods and reduce poverty is to improve income-earning opportunities for farmers.

I am writing today from Kayunga, Uganda where our mobile money company, SmartMoney, is working with a visionary local Ugandan agriculture company called BioGreen to introduce a custom mobile money solution to BioGreen's 10,000 independent small-hold sorghum farmers. Last month I was in Sengerema District in Northwestern Tanzania working with another farsighted organization, the Shindika Group Cotton Ginnery, supporting the rollout of our SmartMoney mobile money service to their 15,000 independent small-hold cotton farmers.

SmartMoney partners with pioneering local African agriculture businesses like BioGreen and Shindika Group that are making a difference in the livelihoods of rural farming families. Our agriculture partners create critical income-earning opportunities for local farmers by buying their crops in large quantities and at predictable schedules and prices. Our partners create reliable markets for local farmers allowing them to plan what crops to grow and when. Reliable markets create income stability enabling families to budget, save and, yes, afford to send all their children to school. SmartMoney builds upon the excellent work of our local agriculture partners by providing them a customizable mobile money service with which to pay their farmers for their crops. SmartMoney replaces cash as a payment solution thereby securing our partners' money and protecting their employees from theft and violence. In addition, SmartMoney allows our partners to monitor the flow of payments to their tens of thousands of farmers, eliminating rampant corruption from middle-men. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, SmartMoney introduces a safe solution for rural farmers and their families to store and transfer money.

Only 2% of Africa's rural people have bank accounts and credit cards are virtually non-existent. Given this reality, agriculture companies like BioGreen and Shindika Group are forced to pay their farmers for their crops with cash. Farmers safeguard their cash by hiding it in tins and jars under their furniture or by tucking it under sofa cushions and mattresses. Literally. A farmer in the village of Wabwoko, Uganda said to me this week, "I received $175 for my sorghum crop last season and I put it under my mattress. But a curtain caught fire and my house burned down. I lost it all. With SmartMoney's mobile money I may have lost my mobile phone, but I would not have lost my money."

Pioneering businesses like BioGreen and Shindika Group are improving the livelihoods of rural farming families and, in so doing, they are proving that locally owned and operated small businesses can make a meaningful positive impact to reduce poverty in Africa. If Obama and other G8 leaders want to expand the Green Revolution in Africa they might consider directing some of the available billions to supporting innovative local agriculture companies like BioGreen and Shindika Group rather than pumping more foreign aid into public-private partnerships between local African governments and large multi-national companies like Monsanto, Cargill and Pepsico. And how, specifically, might this foreign money be used to support local agriculture companies? Perhaps it could be used to finance low-interest loans and credit lines enabling local agriculture companies to purchase inputs and modernize equipment. Or perhaps it could be used to finance capacity building programs to educate local people about modern management, accounting and farming practices. Or perhaps it could be used to introduce much needed technological innovation such as modern irrigation and food storage facilities. The opportunities abound. All that is needed is a little imagination.

SmartMoney supports Africa's Green Revolution by delivering financial and social benefits to local agriculture companies and the rural families whose livelihoods they are improving. SmartMoney facilitates knowledge transfer and creates income earning opportunities by training local people to manage and operate the SmartMoney mobile money service.

Perhaps you have a good business idea that can support Africa's local agriculture companies and positively impact the livelihoods of rural African families. If so, I encourage you to pursue it. Throw on your beret, buy a plane ticket and join the revolution.