Andrew Youn

3 reasons why we can win the fight against poverty

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0:12

I've been living in rural East Africa for about 10 years, and I want to share a field perspective with you on global poverty. I believe that the greatest failure of the human race is the fact that we've left more than one billion of our members behind. Hungry, extreme poverty: these often seem like gigantic, insurmountable problems, too big to solve. But as a field practitioner, I believe these are actually very solvable problems if we just take the right strategies.

0:41

Archimedes was an ancient Greek thinker, and he taught us that if we lean on the right levers, we can move the world. In the fight against extreme poverty, I believe there are three powerful levers that we can lean on. This talk is all about those levers, and why they make poverty a winnable fight in our lifetimes.

0:58

What is extreme poverty? When I first moved to rural East Africa, I stayed overnight with a farm family. They were wonderful people. They invited me into their home. We sang songs together and ate a simple dinner. They gave me a blanket to sleep on the floor. In the morning, however, there was nothing to eat. And then at lunchtime, I watched with an increasingly sick feeling as the eldest girl in the family cooked porridge as a substitute for lunch. For that meal, every child drank one cup to survive. And I cannot tell you how ashamed I felt when they handed one of those cups to me, and I knew I had to accept their hospitality.

1:37

Children need food not only to survive but also to grow physically and mentally. Every day they fail to eat, they lose a little bit of their future. Amongst the extreme poor, one in three children are permanently stunted from a lifetime of not eating enough. When that's combined with poor access to health care, one in 10 extremely poor children die before they reach age five. And only one quarter of children complete high school because they lack school fees. Hunger and extreme poverty curb human potential in every possible way. We see ourselves as a thinking, feeling and moral human race, but until we solve these problems for all of our members, we fail that standard, because every person on this planet matters. This child matters. These children matter. This girl matters.

2:31

You know, we see things like this, and we're upset by them, but they seem like such big problems. We don't know how to take effective action. But remember our friend Archimedes. Global poverty has powerful levers. It's a problem like any other. I live and work in the field, and as a practitioner, I believe these are very solvable problems. So for the next 10 minutes, let's not be sad about the state of the world. Let's engage our brains. Let's engage our collective passion for problem-solving and figure out what those levers are.

3:03

Lever number one: most of the world's poor are farmers. Think about how extraordinary this is. If this picture represents the world's poor, then more than half engage in farming as a major source of income. This gets me really excited. All of these people, one profession. Think how powerful this is. When farmers become more productive, then more than half the world's poor earn more money and climb out of poverty. And it gets better. The product of farming is, of course, food. So when farmers become more productive, they earn more food, and they don't just help themselves, but they help to feed healthy communities and thriving economies. And when farmers become more productive, they reduce environmental pressure. We only have two ways we can feed the world: we can either make our existing farmland a lot more productive, or we can clear cut forest and savannah to make more farmland, which would be environmentally disastrous. Farmers are basically a really important leverage point. When farmers become more productive, they earn more income, they climb out of poverty, they feed their communities and they reduce environmental land pressure. Farmers stand at the center of the world.

4:13

And not a farmer like this one, but rather this lady. Most of the farmers I know are actually women. Look at the strength and the will radiating from this woman. She is physically strong, mentally tough, and she will do whatever it takes to earn a better life for her children. If we're going to put the future of humanity in one person's hands, then I'm really glad it's her.

4:33

(Applause)

4:39

There's just one problem: many smallholder farmers lack access to basic tools and knowledge. Currently, they take a little bit of saved food grain from the prior year, they plant it in the ground and they till it with a manual hand hoe. These are tools and techniques that date to the Bronze Age, and it's why many farmers are still very poor.

4:59

But good news, again. Lever number two: humanity actually solved the problem of agricultural poverty a century ago. Let me walk you through the three most basic factors in farming. First, hybrid seed is created when you cross two seeds together. If you naturally pollinate a high-yielding variety together with a drought-resistant variety, you get a hybrid that inherits positive traits from both of its parents. Next, conventional fertilizer, if used responsibly, is environmentally sustainable. If you micro-dose just a pinch of fertilizer to a plant that's taller than I am, you unlock enormous yield gain. These are known as farm inputs. Farm inputs need to be combined with good practice. When you space your seeds and plant with massive amounts of compost, farmers multiply their harvests. These proven tools and practices have more than tripled agricultural productivity in every major region of the world, moving mass numbers of people out of poverty. We just haven't finished delivering these things to everybody just yet, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

6:04

So overall, this is amazing news. Humanity actually solved agricultural poverty a century ago, in theory. We just haven't delivered these things to everybody just yet. In this century, the reason that people remain poor is because maybe they live in remote places. They lack access to these things. Therefore, ending poverty is simply a matter of delivering proven goods and services to people. We don't need more genius types right now. The humble delivery guy is going to end global poverty in our lifetime.

6:37

So these are the three levers, and the most powerful lever is simply delivery. Wherever the world's companies, governments and nonprofits set up delivery networks for life-improving goods, we eliminate poverty.

6:51

OK, so that sounds really nice in theory, but what about in practice? What do these delivery networks look like? I want to share the concrete example that I know best, my organization, One Acre Fund. We only serve the farmer, and our job is to provide her with the tools that she needs to succeed. We start off by delivering farm inputs to really rural places. Now, this may appear initially very challenging, but it's pretty possible. Let me show you. We buy farm inputs with the combined power of our farmer network, and store it in 20 warehouses like this. Then, during input delivery, we rent hundreds of 10-ton trucks and send them out to where farmers are waiting in the field. They then get their individual orders and walk it home to their farms. It's kind of like Amazon for rural farmers. Importantly, realistic delivery also includes finance, a way to pay. Farmers pay us little by little over time, covering most of our expenses. And then we surround all that with training. Our rural field officers deliver practical, hands-on training to farmers in the field every two weeks.

7:54

Wherever we deliver our services, farmers use these tools to climb out of poverty. This is a farmer in our program, Consolata. Look at the pride on her face. She has achieved a modest prosperity that I believe is the human right of every hardworking person on the planet. Today, I'm proud to say that we're serving about 400,000 farmers like Consolata.

8:17

(Applause)

8:22

The key to doing this is scalable delivery. In any given area, we hire a rural field officer who delivers our services to 200 farmers, on average, with more than 1,000 people living in those families. Today, we have 2,000 of these rural field officers growing very quickly. This is our delivery army, and we're just one organization. There are many companies, governments and nonprofits that have delivery armies just like this. And I believe we stand at a moment in time where collectively, we are capable of delivering farm services to all farmers.

8:56

Let me show you how possible this is. This is a map of Sub-Saharan Africa, with a map of the United States for scale. I chose Sub-Saharan Africa because this is a huge delivery territory. It's very challenging. But we analyzed every 50-mile by 50-mile block on the continent, and we found that half of farmers live in just these shaded regions. That's a remarkably small area overall. If you were to lay these boxes next to each other within a map of the United States, they would only cover the Eastern United States. You can order pizza anywhere in this territory and it'll arrive to your house hot, fresh and delicious. If America can deliver pizza to an area of this size, then Africa's companies, governments and non-profits can deliver farm services to all of her farmers. This is possible.

9:47

I'm going to wrap up by generalizing beyond just farming. In every field of human development, humanity has already invented effective tools to end poverty. We just need to deliver them. So again, in every area of human development, super-smart people a long time ago invented inexpensive, highly effective tools. Humanity is armed to the teeth with simple, effective solutions to poverty. We just need to deliver these to a pretty small area. Again using the map of Sub-Saharan Africa as an example, remember that rural poverty is concentrated in these blue shaded areas. Urban poverty is even more concentrated, in these green little dots. Again, using a map of the United States for scale, this is what I would call a highly achievable delivery zone. In fact, for the first time in human history, we have a vast amount of delivery infrastructure available to us. The world's companies, governments and non-profits have delivery armies that are fully capable of covering this relatively small area. We just lack the will.

10:51

If we are willing, every one of us has a role to play. We first need more people to pursue careers in human development, especially if you live in a developing nation. We need more front line health workers, teachers, farmer trainers, sales agents for life-improving goods. These are the delivery people that dedicate their careers to improving the lives of others. But we also need a lot of support roles. These are roles available at just my organization alone, and we're just one out of many. This may surprise you, but no matter what your technical specialty, there is a role for you in this fight. And no matter how logistically possible it is to end poverty, we need a lot more resources. This is our number one constraint. For private investors, we need a big expansion of venture capital, private equity, working capital, available in emerging markets. But there are also limits to what private business can accomplish. Private businesses often struggle to profitably serve the extreme poor, so philanthropy still has a major role to play. Anybody can give, but we need more leadership. We need more visionary philanthropists and global leaders who will take problems in human development and lead humanity to wipe them off the face of the planet. If you're interested in these ideas, check out this website.

12:10

We need more leaders. Humanity has put people on the moon. We've invented supercomputers that fit into our pockets and connect us with anybody on the planet. We've run marathons at a five-minute mile pace. We are an exceptional people. But we've left more than one billion of our members behind. Until every girl like this one has an opportunity to earn her full human potential, we have failed to become a truly moral and just human race. Logistically speaking, it's incredibly possible to end extreme poverty. We just need to deliver proven goods and services to everybody. If we have the will, every one of us has a role to play. Let's deploy our time, our careers, our collective wealth. Let us deliver an end to extreme poverty in this lifetime.

13:02

Thank you.

13:04

(Applause)

Half of the world's poorest people have something in common: they're small farmers. In this eye-opening talk, activist Andrew Youn shows how his group, One Acre Fund, is helping these farmers lift themselves out of poverty by delivering to them life-sustaining farm services that are already in use all over the world. Enter this talk believing we'll never be able to solve hunger and extreme poverty, and leave it with a new understanding of the scale of the world's biggest problems.

About the speaker
Andrew Youn · Anti-hunger activist

With One Acre Fund, Andrew Youn is transforming African agriculture by helping farmers overcome the obstacles that hobble their harvests.

With One Acre Fund, Andrew Youn is transforming African agriculture by helping farmers overcome the obstacles that hobble their harvests.