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No Pressure, but a Past Guy in This Job Won the Nobel Peace Prize

Former Rockefeller Foundation staff member, Norman E. Borlaug. [Photo credit: 100 Years: The Rockefeller Foundation]
My colleagues and I often speak of being “stewards of a legacy” working here at The Rockefeller Foundation. Over more than a century, decade after decade, the Foundation has catalyzed and transformed fields and sectors from public health to micro-biology, education to artificial intelligence, Universal Health Coverage to Impact Investing, and most impactful for my own work, agriculture.

Because of the Foundation’s vast contributions to agriculture, I greet every World Food Day with tandem feelings of pride and anxiety. If the pride of stewardship began with a signed employment letter, it was equally matched with an awesome sense of responsibility when I was assigned to the agriculture portfolio—the portfolio built by Dr. Norman Borlaug.

Dr. Borlaug was a longtime Rockefeller Foundation staffer known by many names and vast accomplishments. He was Mr. World Food Day. Founder of the World Food Prize. Father of the Green Revolution. Agriculture’s Greatest Spokesperson. The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives. And, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for contributing to world peace through increasing food supply.

This past creates a constant pressure for our present. And as I look around the sector, I see people and organizations living up to and advancing Dr. Borlaug’s legacy. The example he set is so central to the impact we seek that in 2011 we created the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application, endowed by The Rockefeller Foundation through a $1 million contribution to the World Food Prize. The Borlaug Award recognizes scientists and researchers under the age of 40 who emulate Borlaug’s own innovation and dedication to food security, while also working directly with farmers and producers.

I had the honor of announcing as this year’s winner, One Acre Fund’s Rwanda Country Director Mr. Eric Pohlman. He was recognized for his work in developing innovative programs that are transforming subsistence agriculture in rural Rwanda, which has made it possible for smallholder farmers across Africa to escape hunger, poverty and improve their livelihoods.

Pohlman recognized that a major barrier to Africa’s Green revolution is a lack of access to credit for subsistence farmers. He was instrumental in framing an innovative farm finance model that currently serves 100,000 farming families in southwest Rwanda. His contributions to this unique credit system have made technology more affordable for smallholders. This asset-based financing, coupled with agriculture training services for smallholder farmers, now has an average 98% on-time repayment rate for its loans.

In his work, Pohlman made a bold choice not to focus on high-value export crops, and instead shifted attention to increasing the production of staple foods for subsistence farmers. This has proved extremely successful as demonstrated by the organization’s expansion to over 3,000 field-based staff supporting more than 280,000 families since 2006.

His recognition comes at a time when the Foundation has realized that finance and credit access are key barriers to Africa’s farmers’ ability to truly prosper. Two years of exploration for solutions to post-harvest loss in sub-Saharan Africa under our Food Waste and Spoilage initiative showed us that increasing farmers’ access to technologies and finance helps to increase yields and hence their income, leading to greater food security and better livelihoods.

Receiving this year’s award as part of the 2015 World Food Prize international symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, Eric said “Dr. Borlaug confided in a family member late in life that his biggest regret was that the Green Revolution did not reach farmers in Africa, that the breakthrough seeds got stuck somewhere in the Indian Ocean or somewhere between the laboratory and the farmer’s field. I think Dr. Borlaug would be energized by our progress at One Acre Fund but would push us to do more. One Acre Fund is part of an incredible effort by leaders, scientists, and field staff across the continent to deliver on the promise of the Green Revolution. Together let us commit to erasing Dr. Borlaug’s regret and keep farmers first.”

Eric and the thousands of scientists and development workers like him are fellow stewards of a tremendous legacy, and they make my stewardship of the agriculture portfolio at the Foundation immensely rewarding. While I’ll probably never win a Nobel Peace Prize myself, I take comfort that through my efforts I may be supporting the next Dr. Norman Borlaug and when it’s all said and done, the sole feeling I’m left with is being  proud every day—and especially on World Food Day.

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