Listen to the Poorest to Make the Sustainable Development Goals Work

Bill Gates recently referred to the precarious way many of the worlds poorest people support their families -- through their small farms -- as a "high wire act." So many variables can thwart their harvest and drag them and their families back into poverty. Maybe there is an attack of pests. Maybe they can't afford fertilizer. Maybe the rains just don't come.

At One Acre Fund, we witness stories like these all the time. Take the story of Yovita, from the Iringa district of Tanzania. She not only supports her daughter, but her younger sister and niece as well. "Since I cannot control the rain, my harvests are fluctuating as they solely depend on rain. That means, if there is not enough rain, I am likely to harvest little or harvest nothing," she said. She has also struggled to afford improved seeds and fertilizer, and it takes her eight days to prepare her one acre of land for planting with a hand hoe. Even when she does have crops to sell, transport to market is scarce and expensive because the roads from her village are treacherous.

We help 280,000 farmers just like Yovita all across East Africa. We give them credit to access to high-yielding hybrid maize seed and fertilizer, which is delivered to a convenient location, within walking distance of their village. We also provide agricultural training on the best farming techniques, and connect them to local markets in order to sell more produce at a better price. Since we have been working with Yovita, she has earned enough to build a new house for her family.

Agriculture Is a Common Thread Throughout the SDGs

Smallholder farmers like Yovita stand at the nexus of some of the most crucial Sustainable Development Goals, which are officially adopted by the United Nations this week. When farmers improve their harvests, they can improve their incomes and pull themselves out of poverty (Goal 1). They also start producing surplus food for their neighbors, eradicating hunger in their community (Goal 2). They can afford to send their children to school (Goal 4) and when the farmers are women, which many are especially throughout sub-Saharan Africa, gender inequality can also be addressed (Goal 5). Crucially, if we are reaching smallholder farmers with improved seeds that will grow even when rainfall is scarce, or even when plains are flooded, this will also help them overcome the challenges that climate change poses (Goal 13).

We asked Yovita what she wanted the SDGs to do for her. This is what she told us. The top of her wish list is for her government, NGOs and the private sector to provide irrigation systems. This would take away one of the most variable of threats to her "high-wire act" of managing her farm: rainfall. Second, she asked for better access to markets. "If I increase my crop yields and I don't know where I can sell them, I will not be able to make high profits from my products, and I will still be a victim of poverty my entire life," she said. Finally, she wants to put down her hand hoe for life. She told us that access to better technologies such as tractors or power tillers would be a game-changer for her production.

Farmers are Counting on the SDGs to Make a Difference

Yovita isn't the only farmer we spoke to. The global agriculture coalition Farming First has collected ten farmer stories from around the world, from Bangladesh to Benin who all talk about the interventions that their governments, NGOs and the private sector could make to bring them closer to meeting many of the SDGs, and towards a more prosperous future. You can read all ten stories, and the actionable ways these farmers can be empowered to reach several of the SDGS here.

The key difference between the new Sustainable Development Goals and their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is the overarching view that developed nations need to play their part towards a better global future as well. We hope that governments, the private sector, and other NGOs from powerful nations listen to what smallholder farmers, that represent the world's poorest, believe can make the SDGs move from a vision to reality.