Timothy Strong Of Opportunity International On How Farmers And The Ag Industry Are Adapting To The Disruptions Caused By Climate And World Events
An Interview With Martita Mestey
Education matters: Most of these farms are producing only a fraction of their potential. Improving the productivity and success of smallholder farmers is imperative as we work to end extreme poverty. Even incremental increases in productivity would significantly improve local food security.
The war in Ukraine, the ongoing pandemic, and catastrophic climate events have contributed to a global food crisis. Farmers and Ag Industry workers are being challenged to respond and adapt to these disruptions. In this interview series, we’re speaking with leaders in the farming and Ag industries who can shed light on how they’re navigating these challenges and adapting to the disruptions caused by climate and world events. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Timothy Strong, Opportunity International’s Head of Agriculture Finance.
Tim Strong is the Head of Agriculture Finance at Opportunity International. With a wealth of experience in managing a diverse portfolio of agriculture finance products and services throughout Africa, Tim has been at the forefront of driving Opportunity’s efforts to implement and mainstream gender-inclusive services, empowering women in farming. Tim has dedicated his career to working in Southern and Eastern Africa since 2005, collaborating with a range of organizations, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Peace Corps, the Clinton Foundation, and a number of private firms. Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and plant physiology from the University of California at Davis, along with a master’s degree in international environmental policy and an MBA in operations management from Middlebury College. He has lived in Lilongwe, Malawi for the past 16 years.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I like to describe my career as the constant exploration of the word “No”. I’m originally from Northern California, and I trained as a plant scientist (biochemistry and plant physiology) at UC Davis and previously worked out of the U.S. Dept of Agriculture’s National Clonal Germplasm Repository, supporting small farmers in the U.S. to diversify with competitive, niche crop varieties. The repository was positioned to source plant genetics from all around the world to promote resilience in agriculture, but I was disappointed to realize that there was little we could do for farmers outside of the U.S.
I would describe this as the first major “No” of my career in agricultural development — when we look at the advances in agricultural technology, crop production, and crop storage, much of the world is still far behind in terms of equal access. To me, this is a critical “No”, as 60% of the remaining, unopened arable land in the world is located in sub-Saharan Africa, and 80% of Africa’s farmers are classified as smallholder farmers who unfortunately only produce at about one third of their potential yields. It was at this point in my career that I was training a new recruit on a community-supported agriculture venture and unexpectedly, he turned out to be a recruiter for the US Peace Corps.
After many long mornings on our farm, I was recruited by the Peace Corps, where I would work alongside other farmers in the world as an agricultural specialist in Central Malawi. As I’m sure most readers would assume, this is where many more “No’s” started to really emerge. As African smallholder farmers are in some of the most marginalized communities in the world, “No” was frequently heard. This has led me to a strong belief in the possibility of building rural prosperity by leading an organization that realizes the potential of saying “Yes” to farmers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
It’s so hard to choose just one! Here’s an incredibly memorable moment from a few years back. I had the opportunity to host two of our senior colleagues from our UK Offices on a trip to visit Mozambique. We had a growing agricultural lending portfolio in the Beira Corridor in the North-East of the country and I was also joined by our newly recruited Agric Manager. In particular, our visitors were interested in meeting ginger farmers under a new partnership with a company that makes ginger ale. At first, we were thrilled — the weather was a perfect farmers’ day, with a light rain feeding the soil and keeping dust levels down. The clients themselves were wonderfully engaging and amazing couples that truly demonstrated a passion for their work and a love of their land.
Of course, this is where the story starts to get interesting. Our last client spoke as many farmers speak. He described the work that got his farm to where it is now. He was keen to show us what his future vision was. As we walked through his newly opened fields, we found ourselves moving deeper and deeper into the beautiful mountainsides, with their rich red clay soils and deep ravines running alongside the native forest bordering his land. And of course, it was at this point when the skies opened up and torrential rains began pouring through the fields. The rich clay soil turned into impossibly slick mud. With a flight scheduled to depart later that afternoon, we did not have the option to wait out the storm and instead followed our hosts recommendation on a “short cut” back to our truck.
Of course, there are many more details I’d love to share with any of the readers over a cup of coffee, but to cut the rest of the story short, half a day later, we found ourselves finally back at the Chimoio airport, although covered from head to toe in that same rich clay soil. Hilariously, my colleagues and I were actually on a flight to the capital, Maputo, where we were to lead a stakeholder technical design workshop the next day. News to us the following morning was that half of our workshop partners were sitting in the Chimoio airport as we tracked mud throughout airport security and desperately tried to clean ourselves up in the airport restrooms.
To me, this is more than just an interesting story. This is what it takes to fulfill our mandate as an organization. This is what our Field Officers, Branch staff, and Clients themselves work through every day. And luckily for me, my senior colleagues in the UK have now used this story as a reminder of what is needed every time we design a new portfolio, develop a budget, or deliberate on how to best equip our teams.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Passion, Empathy, and Vision.
Passion: Fredrick Beechner, the New York theologian, wrote, “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” For myself, our team, and the farmers that we support, nothing could be truer.
My vocation has been one that is focused on supporting under-represented farmers in the U.S. and across Africa. Our AgFinance portfolio at Opportunity is driven by a singular focus on rural prosperity. The roots of the vision come from my hometown of Watsonville, California, where the financial might of agricultural businesses have the ability to pull top professional talent out of Silicon Valley. To me, this is a clear demonstration of the capacity for agricultural development to build significant employment and, ultimately, rural prosperity. Here on the African continent, the same vision is in its nascency and its roots can be seen everywhere. In Kenya on the road between Nairobi and Lake Naivasha, it is farming that has helped build enough prosperity to where nearly every rural home has running water, electricity, solid roofing, and… satellites on those roofs. To me, the resilience of the farmers we work with on a daily basis fuels this passion.
Empathy: In Malawi, farmers have an expression: “Munthu imodzi susenza denga”, which translates to “One head can’t lift the roof onto a grain silo.” This speaks directly to the need to work together. Improving farmer productivity is not a one-person job and requires the ability to listen to those around us.
Vision: Without vision, the people perish. I’ve been deeply influenced in leadership by my current boss and mentor, Atul Tandon, who’s guided me in expanding the vision for how we reach out to farmers. Constantly demanding more of myself and more of our team to ensure that more farmers — from hard-to-reach communities in southern Malawi to Northern Ghana — have access to the tools, training, and finance that many western farmers take for granted is critical.
We have a vision of how the world should be: farmers should not be the ones going to bed at night hungry. Farmers should be the economic engines that carry economic growth. Young entrepreneurs in rural communities should not have to flock to urban areas or migrate to foreign countries in order to make a living. The hard work must be done by all of us to make that vision a reality.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I would like to offer two quotes:
“It is not from ourselves that we will learn to be better than we are.” — Wendell Berry.
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” — Franklin Roosevelt.
I’m a farmer at heart, but my work at Opportunity International is driven by a singular focus on rural prosperity for smallholder farmers in developing countries. This specific population accounts for one-third of the world’s food and up to 80% of the food supply in developing countries. And yet, three-quarters of those living in extreme poverty rely on smallholder farming for their livelihoods. They struggle to make ends meet and are actually one of the most at-risk groups in regards to food security. Beyond this, this population bears the brunt of climate disasters.
I have been working at Opportunity for the better part of a decade now. I am blessed to have the opportunity to work with some of the most hard-working and resilient people in the world, and to have learned from their experiences and expertise has been a true gift.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
Since I was a child, I’ve always been drawn to orchards; I’ve always felt a sense of reverence in every farmer I’ve met that works with trees. There is a unique type of patience, a prayerfulness, required to believe that a perennial tree will grow from seed until it finally fully fruits. I find the same to be true in clients that work with tree crops.
In Mubende, Uganda, I was with a group of coffee farmers when a young woman named Salome commented that she was taking out loans so that her work today would establish the coffee trees that her children and her children’s children would inherit.
Conversations like this show me that we are on the right path. Investing in and supporting smallholder farmers like Salome means investing in long-term, sustainable communities and food systems. I hope for the grace to have the same impact in my life as Salome will have on her community.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘How Farmers and the Ag Industry Are Adapting to the Disruptions Caused by Climate and World Events’. This might be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to expressly spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few examples of why and how climate change is causing disruptions to agriculture?
The threat of climate change is an ever-present reality. This March, Cyclone Freddy caused mudslides that collapsed whole mountain faces, resulting in hundreds of deaths and over 80,000 displaced. Ensuing rains caused a major outbreak of soybean rust, causing yield losses of greater than 50%. Over 1,000 of our clients and staff lost houses, farms, and livestock. What took years for people to build was wiped out in a month.
But Opportunity’s approach isn’t to look backward, but forward. Obviously, the chaotic nature of climate change increases instability and risk, and so the real challenge is in building sustainable, resilient farms to withstand this instability. So what we ask ourselves is, “What are the barriers that our clients are facing in regards to adapting to this instability?” From what we have seen, the barriers to this transition are:
Duration & Intensity: It can take between 2 and 5 years for farmers to fully implement regenerative agriculture principles. The transition period can require learning new agricultural approaches, employing more labor, navigating new supply chains, and experiencing depressed yields in the short-term. Farmers may not have enough patience, support, or capital in the early adoption phase to surmount these challenges.
Costs: Some practices, such as keeping the soil covered, digging water, and making compost require additional labor as compared to current cropping practices. If farmers don’t have access to financing to address early capital deficits and meet additional costs, they often revert to traditional cultivation practices.
Materials: There are competing needs for organic material on a farm, and shifting the use of critical resources for longer-term solutions can be a challenge. For example, maize stalks may be collected by rural households as cooking fuel instead of using it for mulching. In areas with little organic matter available, cover crops are likely to be a better fit for protecting the soil. However, these may be targeted by local livestock during the lean months when there is not much natural vegetation.
What about world events? Can you share with our readers a few examples of why and how world events and geopolitical choices cause disruptions to agriculture?
Conflict, climate, politics, and hunger are inextricably linked to agriculture — and these crises disproportionately impact those in extreme poverty. The current global food crisis is fueled by climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and various conflicts around the globe.
Because of these conflicts, we’ve seen treaties and trade pacts disrupted. Because of COVID-19, we are still dealing with hobbled international supply chains — causing and exacerbating inflation around the world. Such disruptions not only affect the immediate region but can have cascading effects on global food prices, trade relationships, and even diplomatic ties between nations.
In nearly every market we’re working in, we’ve seen agricultural input prices increase by over 300%. Local currency values have plummeted in several countries showing over 50% inflation rates. For many of the farmers that we’re working with, dollar-denominated inputs represent nearly 60% of their production costs, making these economic realities hit home hard.
Based on your experience and research, can you please share your “5 Things Farmers and Ag Industry Workers Can Do to Adapt to the Disruptions Caused by Climate and World Events”?
1. Design innovative services for rural groups. Again, one of the greatest barriers that the world’s smallholder farmers face is based on geography. They are in hard-to-reach regions of the world, making access to knowledge, finance, and the market a real challenge. Digital services can enable farmers to design new agricultural practices and help external partners better serve excluded groups.
2. Education matters: Most of these farms are producing only a fraction of their potential. Improving the productivity and success of smallholder farmers is imperative as we work to end extreme poverty. Even incremental increases in productivity would significantly improve local food security.
Smallholder farmers produce far below their potential yields, often due to poor farming practices and poor access to extension services. In addition to loans, which ensure farmers can invest in improved inputs, equipment, and workers, Opportunity International facilitates training in good agricultural practices to help farmers learn how to capably manage the health of their land, effectively cultivate their crops, and increase their harvests.
3. Work together: We’ve found that the best way to reach farmers is through other farmers. Thanks to partnerships with local farmers across multiple regions, we have developed what we call farmer support networks, which help farmers learn about best practices, give them somewhere to turn when they have questions about their crops, and connect them to reputable buyers and suppliers.
4. Invest in Adaptation: A large part of the need in this space revolves around the lack of financial support for adaptation and resiliency efforts. As it pertains to climate change, most investments focus overwhelmingly on short-term humanitarian efforts and long-term mitigation projects. But investment strategies neglect the resources necessary to equip those most vulnerable to climate change with tools to face the coming storms. In fact, less than 10% of global investments are focused on this “missing middle” of climate finance.
5. Change your mindset: we must redefine success in the face of climate change. It’s not merely about maintaining yield levels or income, it’s about building resilience against climate shocks through comprehensive training on soil health, crop diversification, innovative irrigation, and other regenerative agriculture practices. As farmers, we need to remember that we’re dependent on our neighbors, our fellow farmers, and our customers. We need to look beyond our individualistic natures and figure out how to work together.
How has technology played a role in helping farmers and the Ag Industry adapt to the disruptions caused by climate and world events? Can you share a few examples?
Now, technology has the potential to help smallholder farmers adapt to these many crises, but the distribution of technology is unequal and there are many barriers (geographic, social, economic, etc.) that must be overcome to meet these challenges.
We’re finding that some of the more accessible AI tools can be greatly beneficial to smallholder farmers, especially when we contain that computing power to the right data sets. Just recently, we sat down with some of the smallholder farmers we work with in Malawi and handed them a tablet with a ChatGPT plug-in that can look up facts only from the Ministry of Agriculture’s approved Good Agricultural Practices Manual. In just a few moments, this generative AI tool helped our farmers learn resilient agricultural practices to adapt to climate change — like region-specific fungicides that could help them combat blight.
With greater attention being placed on the importance of the farming and Ag industries, as well as technological advancements, what do you predict will be different about the farming and Ag sectors over the next ten years?
I’m a firm believer in technology and its ability to change how we work. However, I also remember my first farm manager scolding me that the best farmers he knew were those who kept their faces closest to the soil. I’ve been agreeing for a long time that the most important technology for farmers is improved seed, however the recent climatic shocks have changed my opinion. I believe that the most important technological advancement is investments into soil science and soil health solutions. Ultimately, changing how we approach the stewardship of our land will prove to be the best investment we can make.
The idea of farming has a very romantic and idyllic character to it, especially to some people living in a busy cosmopolitan context. Do you think now would be a good time for younger people with no farming history to get involved in the farming industry? Can you explain what you mean?
I would say it’s not just a good time to enter the industry, it’s a critical time. In the U.S., one-third of America’s 3.4 million farmers are over the age of 65. We need younger generations to get involved in agriculture; our food system depends on it. And many great people are working on this problem, establishing farm mentorship programs, inheritance regimes, and a plethora of other well-designed approaches. The same problem exists in the African context, where the African continent is literally the youngest continent in the world. Many scholars have referred to this as the looming Youth Bulge, but I prefer the term, Youth Dividend. There is a major investment opportunity to build up the next generation of farmers and I’m thrilled about the possibilities.
It is also critical for us to remember that farming and agriculture is not just about production. Throughout the agricultural value chain, there are tremendous employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. Dyborn Chibonga, founder of the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi (NASFAM) and a dear friend of mine, has a phenomenal perspective on this. He says, “The short-handled hoe is a weapon of mass urbanization.”
For us in the industry, it’s critical to see where there are possibilities to take some of the drudgery out of agriculture.
Where should a young person start if they would like to “get into” farming?
The great thing about farming is that it isn’t a monoculture. There are countless different ways to break into the space, all dependent on what it is that you want out of your career. Do you want to support the food supply on a macro scale? Would you prefer to manage smaller farms and cater to local communities? Do you want to live in a rural or urban setting? All of these are viable pathways to being a successful farmer.
And the BEST part is that farming has a low barrier for entry. If you want to start learning about what works and what doesn’t, you should start in your backyard!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Due to the nature of my work, I’m on the road nearly 80% of the time. So given the chance to sit down with any influential leader, Nobel laureate, or World Food Prize winner, I would have to politely decline and ask to have a simple breakfast at our farm with my wife, Jacqueline Strong.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Well, you can follow my own personal social channels, but I would also recommend following Opportunity International, where you can learn more about our mission to end extreme poverty through numerous measures, including expanding education accessibility, connecting entrepreneurs to trainings and loans, and of course supporting the world’s smallholder farmers.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.