Improving M&E to Improve Impact
This is the first post in a series of articles about the lessons we can learn from high-impact organizations. Over the coming months, we’ll learn about how effective organizations tackle some of the biggest challenges to achieving social impact. We’ll cover topics such as monitoring and evaluation, strategy, communications and marketing, and achieving scale in order to highlight the organizations that have done it right and what they did to make it work. In this article, we take a look at how One Acre Fund turned a monitoring and evaluation setback into a major organizational success, changing itself and the way it impacts farmers in Africa.
One Acre Fund’s Program Model & Desired Impact
One Acre Fund serves 300,000 smallholder farmers in East Africa. These are individuals who own only an acre or two of land and rely on their crops for their family’s survival. In developing countries like Kenya and Rwanda, droughts, crop diseases, a farmer’s illness, and many more challenges make it nearly impossible for subsistence farmers to thrive. In response to this volatility, One Acre Fund provides crop financing to its clients, and builds their capacity to increase crop yield by providing resilient, more diverse seeds and fertilizer, trains farmers in cutting-edge agricultural techniques, provides crop insurance, and supplies other complementary services. The goal is to increase farmers’ income by increasing crop yields, but to do so in ways that are sustainable for the farmer, the environment, and the organization.
One Acre Fund’s results are impressive. After working with the organization for one planting season, farms increase their income by an average of 57 percent, or $128. While not a lot of money by Western standards, this is a tremendous impact for those living on less than two dollars a day. At the same time, participating farmers repay their crop financing loans at a rate of 99 percent; again a significant indication that the service is valued by and benefits the farmers. Farmers’ repayments covers 74 percent of One Acre Fund’s operating expenditures, which increases the organization’s sustainability and capacity to continue supporting farmers in the future. For more information about One Acre Fund’s outcomes, see their detailed impact summary.
Impact Insight – Combining rigorous measurement with a learning mindset improves both impact and measurement
Measurement has always been a central component to One Acre Fund’s efforts. The organization measures crop yields, tracks income and profits from a harvest, and experiments extensively with new seeds, fertilizers, and even training methods before selecting refined products and services to farmers. So the decision to invest heavily in a randomized control trial (RCT) in 2009 was not a big surprise. The surprise was the result, which was much lower impact than internal monitoring had suggested. As One Acre reviewed and discussed the results, initially the discussion focused on the failures in the evaluation’s methodology that missed key impacts and how a massive drought in Kenya led to lower outcomes in the study. While those factors were real and valid explanations for the lower-than-expected outcomes, One Acre resisted the temptation to simply dismiss the RCT exercise and its result.
Instead, One Acre Fund decided to learn and improve. Two major lessons were learned from the RCT exercise. First, One Acre realized that their M&E practices somewhat inaccurately measured the impact they thought they were having. For example, the 2009 RCT showed they improved maize profit by 40% when their internal M&E showed they improved profit by 100%. Second, the RCT showed they weren’t having as much impact as they wanted. One Acre Fund believed they impacted farm profit an average of $120 per farmer, but the RCT showed the impact to be closer to $30. Boldly, One Acre Fund decided to invest the dedication and resources needed to solve both issues.
To improve measurement accuracy, One Acre overhauled its M&E practices . One change included the process of making assumptions more conservative. Another change involved investing in more robust screening and processes for hiring M&E employees. They also amplified their employees’ training and professional development in order to use new measurement tools and employ improved M&E skills.
To improve outcomes and increase impact, One Acre made improvements to their strategy, programs and processes, and management. For example, they started an agriculture innovation team to increase agriculture yields, diversified services to include non-maize crops and energy products, narrowed the screening process to select farmers who could best take advantage of One Acre’s tools and training, and increased statistical comparisons between non-customers and One Acre clients.
Because of these changes in management, programs, and measurement, One Acre Fund’s approach to evaluation has become far more sophisticated and even streamlined. As a result, the organization’s impact has steadily improved, and its confidence in that impact is increasingly strong. When One Acre Fund invested in another RCT in 2014, they found measurement practices had increased in accuracy. In 2009, One Acre’s internal measurement indicated that improvement in maize profit was 100% – 60 percentage points higher than the RCT’s measurement; however, in 2014 internal M&E showed 21% improvement – 10 percentage points lower than that year’s RCT findings, a testament to One Acre Fund’s more conservative, rigorous approach to M&E. In addition to boosting M&E accuracy, they also grew impact on farmers’ profits from $30 per farm to $91 per farm. One Acre Fund impressively turned an initial measurement ‘failure’ into a strength, encouraging donors and staff, and improving the world in the process.
Learn more here: https://www.oneacrefund.org/results/randomized-trials
Allison Miller currently serves as a Principal at Ed Direction, working directly with state and district education leaders to improve teaching and learning at scale. Allison oversees content development for Ed Direction’s work with Turnaround Schools in the state of Utah. With over a decade of classroom teaching experience at the elementary level, Allison is passionate about education and the role that teachers play in improving student achievement for all learners, regardless of their level of ability. Her experience in the classroom gives her a unique perspective when working with schools and districts across the country. Allison uses her knowledge of research and pedagogy to help teachers implement changes that lead to improvements in instruction and learning.