Children participate in a parade supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which works to improve the socioeconomic and political inclusion of Afro-Colombians and indigenous people in Colombia. On June 18, ACDI/VOCA, a leading-edge implementer of development programs, will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Photo by: ACDI/VOCA

International development and cooperative leaders from around the world will gather on June 18 in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of ACDI/VOCA, a leading-edge implementer of development programs, especially in the agricultural arena.

Joining them will be what they call “legacy organizations” from four continents that are monuments to ACDI/VOCA’s proficiency at building local capacity.

Former U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Andrew Natsios once called ACDI/VOCA “the premier agricultural development NGO in the world” — a source of pride for a practical-minded organization that tends to shun the limelight.

Besides agribusiness and food security, the organization specializes in enterprise development, financial services and community development. Its success can be attributed to a potent mix of technical expertise, business acumen and humanitarian concern, staff members tell Devex.

Relevant then — and now

The nonprofit can look back on a history that is uncannily relevant to today’s development agenda. It has always emphasized food security, building local capacity and leveraging the private sector.

ACDI/VOCA’s first major project was helping to create a cooperative that went on to become India’s largest fertilizer producer. Later, its network of member-owned and -managed financial institutions all across the former Soviet Union proved to skeptics that lending to private farmers and rural entrepreneurs could be profitable. More recently, under a USAID contract, ACDI/VOCA helped develop important new market-system approaches to increasing income in poor communities and promoting economic growth by enhancing the performance and competitiveness of small enterprises and farms.

USAID has been the organization’s largest donor. ACDI/VOCA serves as a leading implementer of Feed the Future, the U.S. aid agency’s flagship food security program, and was the first implementer of its Farmer to Farmer program. But ACDI/VOCA also taps a variety of other partners from the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Its SUCCESS Alliance program is a model public-private alliance dedicated to cocoa development. Through ACDI/VOCA, the SUCCESS Alliance has connected the World Cocoa Foundation and corporations with public entities to help smallholder cocoa farmers in eight nations.

And while ACDI/VOCA has a storied past, it is busy planning for the future with models for agricultural use of mobile devices, youth programming and climate-smart farming adaptations. Earlier this year, it launched a major learning and innovation drive.

Cooperative roots

ACDI/VOCA’s parent organization was formed in 1963 by major U.S. farm coops — and a few other partners like Nationwide, the insurance giant — to advance cooperative approaches abroad. Today, ACDI/VOCA still fosters cooperative development since banding together in cooperatives continues to be an efficient way to solve problems, build social capital and connect to markets.

In 1967, the organization helped to found the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative, whose production of fertilizer fueled the “green revolution” and helped avert the massive food shortages that had been predicted for the subcontinent. IFFCO is now the largest fertilizer producer in Asia and ranks among Fortune India 500 companies. It is still a cooperative, and a member of ACDI/VOCA.

Experience organizing large-scale, sustainable management and production systems demonstrated early on the need to combine farming expertise with a broad array of business and market-oriented services. To that end, ACDI/VOCA established its first microfinance institution affiliate in Bolivia 20 years ago. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the organization ramped up microfinance efforts across Eastern and Central Europe, offering services in newly independent countries that lacked private financing oriented to the new economic structure.

Developing local markets

In Kenya, where one of every two acres is devoted to maize, ACDI/VOCA implemented the Kenya Maize Development Program, a USAID-funded, $11.2 million program that from 2002 to 2010 quadrupled yields for 370,000 farmers, a third of them women.

“What we’re trying to do is to build the skill sets of a lot of the young people, so that we can drive the business internally from within the regions,” said Steve Collins, ACDI/VOCA’s chief of party in Kenya.

Collins recalls one particularly memorable demonstration project. ACDI/VOCA’s technical support helped a Kenyan widow with eight children massively increase yields on her single acre of land in two cropping seasons by providing altitude-appropriate seeds and advising her on fertilizer application. In the third season, the woman scaled back her maize by half since she had already met the staple needs of her family, and planted nutritious and profitable cabbage and chillies in the remaining parcels.

A focus on finance

ACDI/VOCA’s track record of building successful, independent cooperatives, businesses and financial institutions is due, in large part, to the organization’s ability to see “both sides of the equation,” said Nadia Namken, senior technical director of financial services who has overseen many of ACDI/VOCA’s financing initiatives since joining the organization as a volunteer 13 years ago.

(The organization has implemented over 11,000 volunteer assignments in 138 countries since 1971, representing an estimated $3.2 million worth of technical assistance. Volunteers typically are mid-career experts whose skills complement long-term development activities.)

According to Namken, ACDI/VOCA’s extensive on-the-ground experience supporting producer groups helps the organization understand what kinds of services farmers need. Combining that knowledge with expertise in delivering a range of financial services and products and minimizing risk to lending institutions has led to successful, long-lasting institutions and over a billion dollars in loans.

Representatives from 13 microfinance institutions that ACDI/VOCA helped form — and which have since become independent — will gather after this week’s anniversary celebrations to share experiences and discuss ways to coordinate services to small businesses, farmers and entrepreneurs.

Knowledge sharing and learning

ACDI/VOCA is taking steps to ensure that the lessons learned over the last 50 years, and the knowledge that its experts, — both paid and volunteers — continue to generate feedback into programs run by the organization and its partners.

In January, ACDI/VOCA established a technical learning and standards department staffed with 13 employees to capture the tools and practices that have proven most successful as well as create, test and refine new ones. The best products will be packaged and disseminated in a way that will foster impact as well as continued innovation.

While many organizations talk about the importance of learning, ACDI/VOCA has become “really serious” about it, said Paul Guenette, senior vice president for corporate affairs.

“As we’ve won bigger, more complex projects, and more is asked of us, we’ve been relentless in going through our project management, IT, M&E, learning and other systems to refine our operations,” Guenette said. “We want to be effective and fulfill our obligations to our beneficiaries. We also want to win new business. So on one hand, we’re sticking to our knitting, and on the other, we’ve become a lot more sophisticated and more capable in delivering results.”

With so many more players entering the food security arena and structuring programs in ways that ACDI/VOCA helped pioneer, the organization continues to carve out a name for itself by finding and filling gaps in the commercial lives of the poorest smallholders and entrepreneurs that are at the base of the pyramid.

The ongoing challenge, Namken said, is finding ways to enable more people in the most isolated places to share the benefits of economic growth. In many developing countries, farmers are seen as a credit risk, and lending to agriculture often hovers between 2-3 percent, barring especially rural smallholders from participating in commercial markets.

With 50 years of experience working on the ground with farmers and entrepreneurs in those very communities, ACDI/VOCA, Namken said, is well positioned to overcome these obstacles.

This article was sponsored by ACDI/VOCA. Find out more about ACDI/VOCA.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.