09/04/2014 01:02 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

Building a Better World Through Incremental Innovation

When you hear the word "innovation," what do you think of?

If you're like most people, your mind immediately leaps to the latest touch-screen gadget or to scientists dressed in lab coats. But not every innovation is technology-based, let alone tangible. By definition, innovation can improve processes or catalyze social change. It may be a novel combination of existing resources or a radical invention. Innovations focused on incremental improvements are often undervalued by entrepreneurial circles -- but they are a crucial way for social innovators to create a meaningful impact.

To understand the value of incremental innovation, consider the complexity of social problems associated with coffee production in the developing world. Nearly 25 million coffee farmers subsist on an average of $4 US per day. Many require their children stay home from school to help tend the land or ration their own food between harvests in a phenomenon referred to in Central America as "los meses flacos," or the thin months.

Since the 1970s, a number of systemic innovations have been developed across the globe to help small coffee farmers achieve economic stability. Most well-known are cooperatives and Fair Trade Certifications that allow farmers to receive higher prices. However, they are expensive and difficult to access for many of the smallest farmers. In recognition of the shortcomings, direct trade emerged to enable direct price negotiation between buyers and farmers. Still, many direct trade buyers lack incentive to maintain business relationships with farmers who have been hit hard by crop disease or who lack the knowledge or financial resources to improve the quality of their coffee crops.

Our approach at Project Alianza, a nonprofit based in Nicaragua, is to partner with farmers in extreme poverty and to whom buyers aren't paying attention. We provide a bundle of services including field-based agricultural education, access to farming resources (like coffee plants, fruit tree seedlings, and fertilizers), and, once those two pieces are in place, a link to reliable buyers. That's why we've partnered with Ethical Coffee Chain, a coffee company that eliminates middlemen and decouples from the volatile commodities market to offer higher prices to the farmers from whom they buy.

Considering that nearly half of all Nicaraguans fall below the poverty line, the issues facing the small farmer seem so pervasive and persistent that it is difficult to imagine a true solution.

But at Project Alianza, we believe that complex problems can be addressed through incremental social innovations. Rather than approaching the overwhelmingly complex problem of poverty as a whole or uprooting existing structures, we've found a new approach. We reach out to farmers in greatest need and set up new systems to provide small farmers, like Enrique, the support to gradually improve his circumstances.

Enrique, a father of three, has grown coffee for nearly 18 years. To manage his family farm, he pays for basic farming equipment and transport and is paying off a loan with an interest rate over 45 percent. He's unable to provide consistent meals for his family or to pay school fees, let alone make a profit.

Through a partnership with Project Alianza, Enrique will work closely with an agricultural technician to replenish his farm with coffee plants and expand his farm to include banana trees, to feed his family during the fallow between coffee harvests and shade his coffee. A technician will visit his farm to teach hands-on planning techniques, and Enrique will receive coffee at a fair price. With time, he will become a farming entrepreneur. He will generate income through his efforts and begin to exchange his farming methodologies with his neighbor so she, too, can improve her farm. Most important, he can send his daughters to school.

As incremental social innovators, we realize that as one group, we aren't able to fix all of the world's problems. But by providing knowledge for even one farmer, we can take part in a dynamic chain reaction. Project Alianza is only one link that is needed to better the lives of the family farmers who are the backbone of the stable rural economy and stewards of the biodiverse land on which we all depend.

We are incrementally turning our vision into reality.

If you want to support Project Alianza's efforts they are currently hosting an Indiegogo Campaign.