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Which Packs More Anti-Poverty Punch: Books or Food?

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If you set out to help eradicate poverty, what would be your weapon of choice: more access to books or food?

Raju Agarwal pondered what his arsenal could carry after traveling a couple of times to India, where emaciated bodies filled the railway platforms. One little girl, who stuck out in particular, said she couldn't attend school because she had to watch her baby brother while her mother worked as a servant to earn enough money to feed them all.

"The common perception is the highest-impact solution for alleviating poverty is education," says Agarwal. "If you just build schools, everyone will become educated -- but what do you do about people who cannot go to school, who don't have food?"

In an attempt to find out which solutions might pack the biggest anti-poverty punch, Agarwal quit his job in Ottawa's financial industry and hit the books. He read technical papers, such as research on drip irrigation farming technology, as well as the kind of books that authors hope will motivate many to actually get out and do something. John Wood's Leaving Microsoft to Change the World was Agarwal's favorite; it focused on the former tech executive's efforts to promote literacy and education through a growing network of schools he was building.

But the words of another Microsoft exec - co-founder Bill Gates, in fact - most resonated with Agarwal: "Three-quarters of the world's poorest people get their food and income by farming small plots of land," Gates said three years ago, during a speech to the World Food Prize Symposium in Iowa. "So if we can make small-holder farming more productive and more profitable, we can have a massive impact on hunger and nutrition and poverty."
Thinking he could bridge the gap between small-scale farmers and technology he found through the International Development Enterprises in India, Agarwal created OneProsper International. The non-profit, of which he is the founder and executive director, covers 75% of the cost of each $400 drip irrigation kit that a farmer uses to deliver water directly to a plant's roots. Farmers pay for the remaining 25% of the technology, and their use of the device combined with organic fertilizers has been shown to double their income within a single harvest, Agarwal says.

OneProsper completed an initial pilot program last summer, with around 20 farmers, and says it continues measuring the kits' effectiveness. It has since helped an additional 80 farmers employ the kits to boost the production of okra, corn, tomatoes and eggplant. Now, the group is trying to ramp up its profile through fundraising efforts, including an event in Toronto on October 16 that will help it purchase more irrigation kits for India's farmers.

One of the issues with these kits, however, is that they no longer work as effectively after about five years. Farmers must save enough of the extra income they earn through improved crop yields during that time to help offset the cost of a new kit. Still, the movement to assist farmers in developing countries is growing globally and other "action-oriented optimists," as Microsoft's Wood calls them, are continuing to seek fresh funds for this space.

"If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture," Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, said earlier this year during a speech to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organization. "Investments in agriculture are the best weapons against hunger and poverty, and they have made life better for billions of people. The international agriculture community needs to be more innovative, coordinated, and focused to help poor farmers grow more. If we can do that, we can dramatically reduce suffering and build self-sufficiency," said Gates.

In Canada, some business executives have been soliciting for donations for drip irrigation kits, or otherwise lending their support to OneProsper's efforts. The non-profit's board of directors boasts execs from ventures across the country, including Varshney Capital in Vancouver and St. Mary's Hospital in Montreal. "We all volunteer our time [because] there is very little overhead in this organization, which is one of the things that attracted me," says Laurie Simmonds, a OneProsper board of director and CEO of Green Living Enterprises, an environmental communications agency.