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One Acre at a Time

Andrew Youn’s nonprofit One Acre Fund provides farm families in Africa with the training and equipment needed to thrive.

A black and white pencil-drawn illustration of Andrew Youn wearing rectangular glasses and smiling at the viewer.
Image: Illustration by Bruce Morser

By Andrew Youn
Spring 2024
My Northwestern Direction

During my first year at the Kellogg School of Management a speaker from Abbott Laboratories came to campus to describe their work providing HIV tests in sub-Saharan Africa. I grew up in St. Paul, Minn., and had not traveled abroad extensively. But that speech inspired me to pursue a summer internship in South Africa. 

During my internship, I visited Kenya and met two farmers: One was shockingly poor, and her family was clearly suffering, while her neighbor thrived, producing four times as much food. Both farmers were some of the most industrious people I had ever met — but one lacked access to basic farming tools and techniques. Those two women sparked the idea for One Acre Fund: Could we equip the hardest-working people on Earth with the basic farm inputs and training required to thrive? 

It takes a village to turn an idea into a nonprofit organization. The first time I asked someone for donations — I asked classmate Matt Forti ’00, ’06 MBA for $20 a month — I was so nervous that my voice was shaking. He not only supported me but enlisted the help of a hundred other classmates, formed our original board of directors and joined the staff full time. Since then, he has helped raise tens of millions of dollars for our work. Larry Levy ’66, ’67 MBA, Carol Neims Levy ’64 and an anonymous donor provided major seed funding, together with several Northwestern-affiliated families, including the Knights, Combes and Wilsons. Kellogg professors such as Harry Kraemer ’79 MBA and the late Barry Merkin and Wally Scott ’53 jumped in. And One Acre Fund got off the ground. 

Today we provide training and small loans (in the form of farm inputs such as seed, micro-dosed fertilizer and tree seedlings) to 4 million farm families across nine countries in eastern and southern Africa. We have 8,000 full-time staff, and more than 20 Northwestern alums have worked with the organization to date. 

In the early days of One Acre Fund, I stayed overnight with a farming family in Bungoma, Kenya. I witnessed their affection for each other. I sang with them and listened to their hopes and dreams. The next morning, I joined them in the field. But after 20 minutes of hoeing the field, I had to stop — I just couldn’t keep up. This helped me understand just how hard farming is. 

“I stayed overnight with a farming family in Bungoma, Kenya. I witnessed their affection for each other. I sang with them and listened to their hopes and dreams.”

This understanding is a foundational reason that we’ve been successful. Our staffers live in close proximity to the farm families and listen to them. We recruit humble people with potential and then invest in their careers. And farmers have a stake in our organization; they pay for part of our services, and we are invested together in their future. 

We also learn from failure. Farming is a tough business, and I have seen families grapple with weather catastrophes, health issues and other disruptions to their economy. Every time we fail, we learn. After a crop disease caused losses for many of our farmers, for example, One Acre Fund started a tree-planting program. Today we help farmers plant more than 50 million wood and fruit trees each year. 

Our goal is to serve 10 million families a year by 2030. No matter the numbers, however, I remain inspired by the individual farmers we serve. Every single day, it is my privilege to serve the hardest-working people on Earth. And every single person we serve matters.   

Andrew Youn ’06 MBA, ’19 H is co-founder of One Acre Fund. He lives in Kigali, Rwanda.   

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