Acumen Blog

Two-pronged social impact

Africa - Frances (MM).jpgSometimes you see change in unexpected places, coming from unexpected people.

Meet Frances, a beaming driver for Advanced Bio-Extracts (ABE), a company that works with 7,000+ farmers in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to produce a critical input into cutting-edge malaria treatment therapies, artemisinin. As a driver, Frances has job stability that many in Kenya lack, yet his income is still quite modest and his hours long. Frances lives with his wife and children in Nairobi, but a small, mountainous village two hours outside Nairobi is where he calls “home.” His parents and brother still live in the village and tend to small plots of maize, arrow root and French beans.

Having never farmed for a living, Frances is an unlikely candidate to grow artemisia. But he’s doing it. Frances recently planted 2,000 artemisia seedlings on his family’s land and he returns to his village whenever work permits, usually twice per month, to tend to them.

He’s frank about his inexperience:

“Frances, do you know how to farm?”

“No.”

“But you’re growing artemisia?”

“Yes.”

But he is optimistic about the opportunity. An entrepreneur in a driver’s body, Frances sees the potential for artemisia, which currently brings in four times more cash than maize. Yet, if you ask Frances exactly how much money he could make when it’s time to harvest his field of artemisia, Frances will tell you it does not matter. All that matters is that his experiment succeeds. If he can prove that high-quality artemisia can be grown on his family’s land, then he will be able to bring a new cash crop to his entire village.  Smallholder farmers throughout the region might be able to grow artemisia, start increasing their incomes, and finally pull away from the poverty line.

This is social impact. Not only does ABE produce a critical component of life-saving malaria treatments, the company is also causing a positive shift in the lives of thousands of smallholder farmers (and even a few drivers) in East Africa. 

That is not to say there is not risk in farmers shifting to artemisia. The market may change: demand for artemisia may fall, or oversupply may drive down the price. The farmers I’ve spoken with recognize these risks, and where possible are mitigating them by maintaining subsistence plots of maize (maize stalks also feed cattle), arrow root and French beans.

Yet, like Frances, many see an opportunity in artemisia, and ABE is trying to deliver on that opportunity.

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