Liezl Van Riper, a vice president of development at myAgro, explains how a new business model is transforming the lives of many African farmers.

The winner of the 2018 Barry & Marie Lipman Family Prize at the University of Pennsylvania is myAgro, a pioneering mobile layaway saving model that enables smallholder farmers to invest in seeds to improve their harvests and move themselves out of poverty. The nonprofit organization stood out among more than 100 applicants globally because of its trajectory for growth and impact. Umi Howard, director of the Lipman Family Prize at Wharton, spoke with Liezl Van Riper, vice president for development at myAgro, about the organization’s work and future plans.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Umi Howard: The idea for myAgro came from the vision to reimagine the way smallholder farmers in Africa were repaying their loans. Can you tell us about the start of myAgro and what inspired it?

Liezl Van Riper: MyAgro was founded by Anushka Ratnayake. She was an early employee of Kiva, where she learned all about microfinance and realized pretty quickly that if she wanted to make a dent in poverty, she would have to work with smallholder farmers. She moved to Kenya and Rwanda, working with One Acre Fund. While there, she was figuring out how to help farmers repay their loans at higher repayment rates.

It was during this time working on loans, working on expanding microcredit, when she experienced farmers approaching her to prepay their loans early. This was surprising because they didn’t need to, yet they wanted to prepay when they had the cash. She even had some farmers pay the next year’s loan in full before getting the loan. The reason this was so interesting was because the notion is that farmers are too poor to save — they don’t have money to save. Even though these farmers were speaking the language of credit, they were actually practicing the behavior of savings. Anushka was starting to see that maybe credit isn’t going to be what’s going to scale and enable farmers to have some access to finance.

Right now, the annual financing need for all the smallholder farmers in the world, if they could have the right amount of financing to invest in their fields, would be about $200 billion. Only a quarter of that is being met currently. So, credit is pretty limited in its reach when it comes to smallholder farmers.

“Even though these farmers were speaking the language of credit, they were actually practicing the behavior of savings.”

Anushka realized that there really was an opportunity to look at the ability for farmers to save their own money and sort of self-finance the inputs — the seed, the fertilizer, the tools and the training — that they need to get out of poverty.

Howard: Where does myAgro operate, and how does the location affect the model?

Van Riper: We are working in Senegal, which is where our headquarters is located, and also in Mali. In that part of West Africa, farmers have a lot of land but don’t have access to the financing they need to invest in those lands and to buy the feed and the fertilizer. There’s this enormous need. You’ve got a lot of uncultivated land, and three-quarters of the population in Mali, for example, are farmers. And you’ve got a lot of young people who could be the next wave of future farmers for West Africa. For Anushka, it was a natural place to test out this idea of whether farmers can save their own funds to invest their way out of poverty.

In addition, there’s also a lot of familiarity there with scratch cards. Farmers purchase mobile phone cards almost weekly, scratch off the code, punch in that code, and they’ve just topped off their mobile phone with more minutes. That’s a regular practice in West Africa. Anushka thought this scratch card model could work really well and wouldn’t require a ton of behavior change for farmers. She wanted to test this model in Mali, and it worked out well. Politically, there was a coup, which was followed by a counter-coup, so she thought, “Maybe we can also expand into a more stable region.” She expanded the model into Senegal, and this year we’re working with 25,000 farmers in each country.

The program is growing, and Senegal is proving a wonderful place for us to have our home base and to continue testing new ways to increase farmers’ productivity and income.

Howard: Organizations like myAgro deal with complex adaptive problems. Can you point to one thing that has changed over the past five years in terms of the way you approach the work?

Van Riper: We’re starting to see now more and more that climate change is a problem for our farmers. It presents a major challenge. Our farmers are contending with shifting rains and shortened rain seasons more so now than ever. We have to figure out how we can help support them. One of the ways we’re doing that, for example, is we’ve rolled out a new crop package for sorghum. Sorghum is a seed that is drought-resistant and resilient. You can plant it and, even if the rains don’t come at the time that the farmers are expecting the rains to come, the seed will stay intact and germinate when the rains eventually do make it.

For a farmer who’s contending with unpredictable rains and having very little labor to plant during that short planting season, sorghum is a great package for us to sell. It’s also nutrient-dense. We sold quite a few packages of sorghum to women farmers this year, and we plan to expand that program as a way to help farmers build their resilience against the shifting climate.

Howard: You’ve worked at several cutting-edge social impact organizations, including Kiva and KickStart International. Why were you attracted to myAgro?

Van Riper: I’ve been fortunate because much of my career has been in service and working with smallholder farmers and entrepreneurs. I’ve always loved working in a model that helps a farmer or helps an entrepreneur lift themselves out of poverty, and microfinance and microcredit have largely spurred that. Once an entrepreneur has access to even as little as $400, that can go such a long way in places like Mali and Senegal. I’ve always been inspired by models that extend and expand access to capital. In my heart, I think myAgro is going to do that with microfinance in a much bigger way than we’re seeing right now.

MyAgro’s model is tapping into people’s own finances. It’s their own ability to lift themselves out of poverty, using what they’re already familiar with — their mobile phones and scratch cards. To me, that’s inspiring and exciting because I think it has potential to scale across rural Africa in a way that microfinance and microcredit hasn’t yet. I see the two as complementary. We need as many solutions as we can, and I think of savings and mobile layaway as a complement to microcredit.

“MyAgro’s model is tapping into people’s own finances. It’s their own ability to lift themselves out of poverty, using what they’re already familiar with.”

Howard: What do you see for myAgro in the next five to 10 years?

Van Riper: We’re at an inflection point. We’re working with 50,000 farmers this year. By 2020, we’re expecting to be working with 200,000 farmers per year. We’re expanding to Tanzania to trial our model with mobile money. Mobile money is prevalent there, and we think that if we can find a way for farmers who use mobile money to save little by little, that could scale quickly.

We also see ourselves on track toward our north star, which is working with 1 million farmers in 2025. By that time, we want to double their farm income. We want to take farmers who are living on $1.50 a day and get them to about $3 a day. That’s where I really see myAgro in the next five to seven years. How are we going to get there? We’re really excited because we’re starting to tap into an exciting new distribution channel, and that’s savings groups.

Today, there are about 60 million farmers who are already organized into formal and informal savings groups. They’re already practicing savings patterns, savings behaviors, but they’re not using their savings to invest in their fields. The handful of large NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) that manage these savings groups are now working and partnering with myAgro, asking us to come in and help those savings group members, who are mostly women, save and divert their savings on what’s actually going to increase their income, which is high-quality seed, fertilizer and training in their fields.

Right now, a lot of the savings group members are not investing that savings into their fields. That’s where myAgro comes in. It’s a really great marriage between the savings groups and myAgro’s model. We drive the impact, and they can already use their regular savings behaviors to help lift themselves out of poverty.

Howard: At the Lipman Prize, we are very focused on the potential for the transfer of practice between organizations. An organization like myAgro has a very adaptable framework in terms of the way that you work with government agencies, nonprofits and these savings groups. When you think about the transfer or the spread of the myAgro model, what do you need in order to make that happen?

Van Riper: We’ve got to build in our platform first. Internally, we’ve got a mobile layaway platform … and it has been something that has worked well for us in the last seven years since we’ve been founded. We’re now at that point where we’re serving 50,000 customers this year. If we’re doubling to 100,000, 200,000, then we’ve got to get a much more robust platform. On the tech side, that’s going to enable us to partner more easily with these large savings group networks.

So, first and foremost is getting our mobile platform on another level. It’s also building out our middle management. We’ve got a whole army of field agents who are working on the ground with our farmers and with the village mom-and-pop shops to try to enroll more farmers into myAgro. At the rate at which we’re scaling, we need a pipeline of the best from that group who are going to serve as the managers in the middle layer. That’s going to take a lot of training, a lot of grooming and identifying who our most promising leaders are.

Howard: You’re describing an iterative process for developing the organization and refining the model. Can you share one challenge that you’ve had over the last few years in getting to the place where you are now, and how you’ve worked to overcome it?

Van Riper: Yes. Literacy rates are quite low where we work, in Mali especially. We have been challenged in our field agents. Those are our frontline staffers who are going out there, working with the farmers. If they aren’t literate, or the vendors they’re working with aren’t so literate, then it becomes a challenge to implement our training materials, much of which includes written language.

“We see ourselves on track toward our north star, which is working with 1 million farmers in 2025.”

We’ve had to adapt by creating low-literacy tools — lots of photos, lots of icons. We have a smartphone that all of our field agents and the village vendors are armed with. They use this to work with farmers, to get them to enroll with myAgro. This year in Mali, we’ve rolled out a low-literacy app. If I’m talking to you as a farmer, instead of showing you words or trying to read words to you, I have very easy-to-use pictures. And if both of us have low literacy, we can go through the process quickly and easily. That’s an area that we’re innovating around and trying to build and work around.

Howard: MyAgro also is doing work that emphasizes women’s leadership. Can you talk about the opportunity that you see there?

Van Riper: One of the facets about myAgro that I love so much is that we’re one of the fastest-growing employers of rural youth in West Africa. There are not as many organizations out there that are growing as quickly as we are and relying on field staff that need to be from the villages where we serve. That means we’re recruiting at a rate now that’s pretty exciting. We’re constantly looking for qualified field agents to come and work for us and with us. They undergo a lot of professional development. As I mentioned, we have a training academy, so they’re getting a lot of great skills. They become pretty savvy when using the smartphone and using apps. Many of them have never used those before.

Right now, our field agent staff is about less than 7% women. We want to kick that up. We would love to see a ratio of at least 30% of our staff being women. In order to get there, we’ve got to find the best and figure out how to groom those potential leaders. So, this year we launched Leadership des Femmes, a women’s leadership program, and we’re looking for the best and the brightest women who have promise.

We’re putting them through training that they’ve never in their lives received, like how to build confidence, how to run a meeting, how to delegate tasks, how to use soft skills to win people over, how to talk to customers in a way that makes the customers feel good. The women have said repeatedly that they’ve never gotten this kind of training before. They’ve never gotten professional development before. We don’t see this as just for myAgro. We want to support them for their future careers. This is training that’s going to benefit them for their next job, and that’s what we want. We want these women to become future leaders from the areas that they’re serving in rural Mali, rural Senegal.

Howard: The Lipman Family Prize combines both a cash award and a partnership for the winning organization. MyArgo will receive $250,000 in unrestricted funding. How do you imagine using those resources?

Van Riper: We’re constantly building out our systems and our leadership bench. I mentioned earlier about the mobile layaway platform. We want to continue to build that out so we can ensure that when we are working with and serving 1 million customers in 2025, we have the right infrastructure to support that, because that’s a lot of SMS texts coming in the form of payments. Again, talking about the middle management layer, we want to continue building out our training and education program for our field staff to make sure that we are as strong and prepared to serve this scale and this inflection point that we’re currently facing.

“Right now, our field agent staff is about less than 7% women. We want to kick that up.”

We also are experimenting and trying to roll out more work with a planter. It’s a myAgro precision planter. The biggest constraint right now that the farmers face and why they don’t buy bigger myAgro packages is lack of labor. They have said repeatedly that if they had a way to plant the bigger packages in time for the rains, they would buy bigger packages. We’ve come up with a planter that enables them to save up to 10 planting days. What that means is, I want to buy a $50 package of seed and fertilizer from myAgro, but I know there’s no way I’m going to plant that in time for the rains. But if I had access to this planter, I would buy that bigger package. And that bigger package at the end of the season is going to translate into more food and more money for me.

We’re experimenting with ways to expand access to this planter. We’re not envisioning that every myAgro farmer buys this planter, but we want to figure out ways for them to have access to it. We’re investing our resources and our donor funding in answering questions like, what if we were to have a program where we lease the planter to a village and they rent it out for income? It would be like a library system where there’s someone there who’s leasing it, and they check it out to farmers, and that person is generating income. We’re experimenting and thinking through some fun funding mechanisms to get many more farmers using this planter. So, that’s part of what we’ll be using the funding on.

Howard: You have mentioned that there’s some design work to do with the planter. It makes me think of the School of Engineering here at Penn. Being a Lipman Prize winner, it makes myAgro a part of not only the Lipman Prize community, but also the Wharton and broader Penn community. Can you speak to your hopes for partnership and how we might support the work of myAgro?

Van Riper: My hope and vision is a multifaceted partnership. Don’t get me wrong, the $250,000 in unrestricted cash grant is hugely meaningful to us. The other parts of the award are also exciting. We would love to take advantage of leadership development. Everyone from the whole leadership team to our promising leaders in the field could benefit tremendously if they had access to some of the educational programming that you offer. We’re very excited to take advantage of that, both for members of the staff who are at the leadership level and also in the field.

We are always looking for help with our design. We’re trying to decrease the manufacture cost of the precision plant so that it becomes more accessible and affordable. And we’re constantly looking for new ideas and new thought partners.

When you mentioned the design school, that’s definitely something we want to explore. I think of it also as knowledge-sharing. As you continue to grow the Lipman family of honorees, how can we help? How can we share what we’re doing and learning and making mistakes on? A lot of knowledge-sharing would be of big benefit to us, and we’d be happy to do that.