From Degenerative to Regenerative: Flipping the agricultural extension paradigm in Latin America

SHI has partnered with 3000 families to regenerate 25,000 acres of degraded land with agroecology systems that include 4 million trees.

Photo of Elliott Powell
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Eligibility Criteria

  • I confirm that I am fully aware of the eligibility criteria and terms of the Act for Biodiversity Challenge and that I am eligible to apply.
  • I am 18 years old or older.

Initiative's representative name

Elliott Powell

Initiative's representative date of birth

April 23, 1983

Initiative's representative gender

  • Man

Headquarters location: country

  • United States

Headquarters location: city

Boston, MA

Where are you making a difference?

Belize, Honduras, Panama

Website or social media url(s)

Date Started

May/ 1997

Project Stage

  • Scaling (expanding impact to many new places or in many new ways)

Yearly Budget : What is your current yearly budget for the initiative?

  • €1mil - €5mil

Organization Type

  • Nonprofit/NGO

1. Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this project to succeed.

Florence Reed served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Panama, where she saw tropical forests burned every year by farmers desperate to replace farmland degraded by previous burning. Driven to offer an alternative, Reed did research on sustainable alternatives during her Peace Corps tenure, training farmers on ecological techniques. Moved by the positive outcomes she saw, Reed sought to build upon this tremendous potential. She was offered start-up funds by a Swiss man who had seen her work in Panama. SHI was founded in 1997 initially working in partnership with a Honduran ecological organization to provide multi-year technical assistance by local trainers to 50 families.

2. The problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Degenerative farming increases water, air and soil contamination, poverty, rural flight, biodiversity loss. This downward spiral in rural communities in Latin America is exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. The strong interconnectedness leads to an uncertain and desperate landscape for most of the world’s small farmers. While most farmers are willing to embrace ecological farming practices that reverse negative trends, they are not offered holistic assistance to make a transition.

3. Your solution: How are you working to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

SHI’s multi-year extension program provides the stepping stones for these families to establish biodiverse, ecologically healthy farms that improve their diet, income and health, while also reversing the degradation of soils, protecting water sources, preserving natural ecosystems, increasing biodiversity and stabilizing the climate. Our current five-phase program supports one local field trainer working directly with approximately 35 farmers every week for five years. Our model is centered around knowledge exchange, leading to sustainable improvements in soil, farm and family health that is passed from one generation to another. This model has proven successful in four countries across different climatic regions and with different ethnic groups, as demonstrated by our 2018 survey of 300 SHI graduate families in Honduras and Panama. 91% continue to use regenerative agro-ecology practices. Our staff, native to the country and often the region where they work, are carefully selected for their expertise and work with farmers to find individual, locally appropriate, regenerative farming approaches.

4. Innovation: How are you innovating or using unique approaches to solve the problem?

Agricultural extension has traditionally focused on providing farmers with expensive environmentally destructive agro-chemicals and limited new knowledge for increasing agricultural productivity. SHI has flipped that modeled on its head to create an extension program based on sharing of knowledge that has no long-term cost to maintain. Our model is based on a knowledge exchange, without provision of a “tool kit” . Through a long-term relationship between a local expert Field Trainer and a smallholder famer, knowledge on regenerative practices are learned, practiced and perfected. This new knowledge leads to a change in consciousness of farmers, which results in increases in agricultural productivity and biodiversity.

5. Collaboration: How does your initiative seek to bring key players together to preserve biodiversity?

Central to SHI’s grassroots approach is collaboration and sharing of knowledge. SHI systematically encourages exchanges locally, but also collaborates closely with targeted international networks and learning institutions. SHI’s approach centers around bringing key actors together including: • Citizen level: neighbors are inspired by and learn from each other. • Learning institution levels: universities and institutions work alongside SHI extensionists to learn and share knowledge, as exemplified by SHI’s partnerships with Global Brigades, Nourishment Economies Coalition, EARTH University, etc. SHI also invites local CSOs to participate in our long-term to spread partnerships with farmers. • Networks: national and international networks for sharing best practices and educating the public, including the Panamanian Organic Agriculture Association and Regeneration International.

6. Impact: how has your project made a difference so far — in terms of both business outputs and social impact? How do you plan on measuring progress?

Over 23 years working with smallholder farmers, one-third of whom are women, in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, Sustainable Harvest International has: provided direct technical assistance to over 3,000 families encompassing 15,000 people, planted and cared for over 4 million trees on degraded lands, supported participants as they regenerated over 26,000 acres through establishment of agroforestry systems, agroecological plots and reforested areas. Of our 3,000 graduates, 91% continue using what they learned while sharing the knowledge with others. We measure impact against a set of indicators in 5 key areas: agroforestry, environment, food sovereignty, livelihoods and learning capacity. Data is collected using the Akvo Flow mobile app at distinct points along the five-year, phased approach, starting with a baseline and ending with an impact evaluation.

7. Growth strategies: what are your main strategies for scaling your impact?

In 2018, SHI’s board approved the following goal to guide scaling up our impact: Through regenerative agriculture, Sustainable Harvest International will work directly with farmers, and with partners who will replicate our methodology, to halt and reverse the degradation of 8 million acres on a million farms and achieve food security for 5 million people by 2030. To reach this vision, SHI has a three pronged approach: grow the number of farms in our program, test changes to parts of our methodology to lower net cost per outcome while achieving the same impacts, and training partner organizations in our approach to increase scale and reach within each country.

8. Creating shared value: How does your initiative create value for society? Or different stakeholders?

In addition to the positive impacts for farming families and our environment, SHI’s scaling plans will look at adding one or more earned-income ventures such as marketing products from SHI farms or selling products to SHI farms; micro-lending to SHI farms; or facilitating voluntourism opportunities. The increased production of regenerative crops and increased prosperity of the farmers growing them will create many new business opportunities. Our scaling plans will also give national governments the opportunity to adopt our single, integrated methodology that will allow them to reach multiple targets for their commitments to the UN’s SDGs and climate change agreement.

9. Financial sustainability plan: can you tell us about your plan to fund your project and how that plan will be sustainable in the short, medium, and long term?

SHI is a US-registered, 501c3 nonprofit with locally registered subsidiaries in Panama, Honduras and Belize. In FY2017 SHI’s total revenue was just over $1.3 million with 77% of that income donated by hundreds of individuals, 13% coming from foundations and 3% derived from business sponsors. The majority of SHI’s donors give consistently from year to year with many having continued their support for two decades. Over the coming year, SHI will diversify funding sources, with a focus on leveraging our successes to date to gain relationships with a wider array of foundations. Longer term, SHI will seek to add an earned-income venture to generate income for technical assistance and costs associated with the earned income ventures.

10. Team: what is the current composition of your current team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?

SHI has a US based Board of Directors who support the US based staff: Executive Director, Director of Strategic Growth, Manager of Donor Engagement, and others. SHI’s country programs are run through country-registered subsidiaries managed by local staff, including a country director, and governed by a country-level board. As SHI scales up, our board and staff leadership will evolve to include expertise in business development and government partnerships.

11. How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Recommended by others
  • Word of mouth

12. Connection to Biodiversity: How does your project directly contributes to preserving and/or restoring biodiversity? Please share data to support your answer.

Our program directly impacts biodiversity in four ways: 1) Introducing farmers to dozens of varieties of crops and reintroducing many native varieties where they’ve become extinct. We maintain diversity through community seed preservation, as well as seed exchanges. 2) Supporting program participants in the planting and care of diverse tree species that host a diversity of fauna and flora in agroforestry plots similar to those shown to have 90% of the bird biodiversity of natural forests. 3) Teaching farmers to avoid synthetic inputs thus preventing the deaths of many species that would otherwise be directly killed by these products or indirectly killed by contaminated prey, while improving soil health. 4) Intensifying production with agro-ecology allowing forests to not be chopped down for agricultural production, decreasing pressure for land use which is one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss.

13. Example: Please walk us through one or two concrete examples that show how your solution will solve the problem you’re trying to address.

Before partnering with SHI, Maria dreamed of a home with land to grow food for her family, and food for the animals she grew up loving. Over five years, Maria worked hand-in-hand with her field trainer to learn about composting, cover crops and other regenerative approaches that improved the soil. This improved soil now supports fruit trees, hard wood trees and a wider diversity of plants than she had ever dreamed could be cultivated on her land. To her delight, animals like the monkeys that come by at night, to the goats that she is raising, are all supported by her farm. She loves to watch the birds, like chachalacas and toucans, come feed on her farm. Her new understanding of the importance of biodiversity and how to support it on her land, has led her to continue using the regenerative techniques learned from SHI. In her own words, “…I tell myself I want to plant it all so that there will be food for the animals and for us”.

14. Marketplace: Who else is addressing this problem in your environment? How does your proposed project differ from these other approaches?

The long-term nature of SHI’s approach enables smallholder farmers and field trainers to create individual regenerative farm plans based on local knowledge and expertise. The exchange of this knowledge when implementing the plans creates positive outcomes in biodiversity, food diversity, soil health and family health. Knowledge doesn't disappear like tools, and has been shown to be passed down from generation to generation. Unlike other organizations working at the cross-section of human and environmental health through introducing smallholder farmers to regenerative agriculture practices, SHI’s approach has been shown to be i) replicable in different cultural and ecological contexts as all staff are local experts, ii) proven to improve smallholder farmers’ family and land’s health and overall resilience, and iii) grassroots in its nature, with neighbors recruiting neighbors and generations passing techniques onto the next generation.

15. Awards & Recognitions: What awards or recognitions, if any, has the project received so far?

1% for the planet, Guidestar Platinum, Great Nonprofits Top-Rated 2015 SHI’s Founder, Florence Reed, has three honorary doctorates for her work with SHI and has won a number of awards, including the Yves Rocher Women of the Earth Award, the National Peace Corps Association Shriver Award, and Distinguished Service Medal from the Garden Club of America.

16. Financial Sustainability – funding breakdown: Please list a quick breakdown of your funding, indicating an estimated percentage that comes from each source.

In FY2017 SHI’s total revenue was just over $1.3 million with 77% of that income donated by hundreds of individuals, 13% coming from foundations and 3% derived from business sponsors. The majority of SHI’s donors give consistently from year to year with many having continued their support for two decades.

17. How do you plan to influence your field of work if you are a winner of the Act for Biodiversity Challenge? How would you invest the prize money to leverage your work?

SHI is at a critical juncture, having documented the positive impacts of our approach on families’ and the planet’s health. Our staff, board and participants see the potential to scale this approach and have a much broader impact on improving life for smallholders around the world, while both mitigating and increasing resilience to climate change. The Act for Biodiversity Challenge Award would not only provide funding needed for the next steps towards our scaling vision, but also validate our work and allow us entry into a new network of critical partners.

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Photo of Osmond Mugweni

Can we be in touch. I greatly appriciate this work. It can enhance my work on rehabilitation and regeneration of degraded arid rangelands. Also it can guide me in scaling up this work

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