Curt Bowen
Ashoka Fellow since 2014   |   United States

Curt Bowen

Semilla Nueva
Curt Bowen, through his organization Semilla Nueva, is changing the agricultural development system in Central America, working with farmers, citizen sector organizations, and government institutions…
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This description of Curt Bowen's work was prepared when Curt Bowen was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Curt Bowen, through his organization Semilla Nueva, is changing the agricultural development system in Central America, working with farmers, citizen sector organizations, and government institutions to create a research and results-based culture. Driven by farmers’ needs and insights, this new approach improves both agricultural practices and the livelihoods of small farmers.

The New Idea

Curt Bowen’s organization, Semilla Nueva --“New Seed” -- systematically changes the way that agricultural research and extension services for farmers work by ensuringthat these interventions respondfarmers’ actual needs. Through a new approach to farmer to farmer education, Semilla Nueva shifts ownership of the insights back tofarmers. Then, using experiments and data sourced from and shared by the farmers, Semilla Nuevascalessuccessful solutions by institutionalizing the practices within the government and CSOs.

Semilla Nueva´s mission is to develop a fully functional system of agricultural development, first in Guatemala and then Central America,to ensurethe food security, increased income,improvement of soil, and general wellbeing of the region´s farmers. Semilla Nueva does this by putting in place the right incentives for each stakeholder in the system. The strategy is based on three tiers: 1) Find, teach, and share the best appropriate agricultural technology for small holder farmers through international collaborations, participatory technology trials, and in house research; 2)Institutionalize research practices and successful services for farmers, working with government agencies and CSOs; and 3) Generate a new standard for development organizations creating synergies between them and with the government to result in systemic change.

By understanding the motivations of each of these actors, Curt has designed a strategy in which the work of one group feeds intothat of others, creating a virtuous cycle that has the farmer´s needs as a general starting point and that provides an easily translatable solution for the broken agricultural system that reignsin the region. With the help of Semilla Nueva, farmers are able toresearch and prove new technologies, and thendemand the right kinds of tools and services to grow themselves out of poverty. In turn, governments can provide these appropriate resources more effectively, and development organizations can work beyond their own programs in a more structured, accountable, and systemic way. Through partnerships with different actors, Curt is setting the stage for a social movement around agricultural development, and with this approach, the movement has begun to naturally spread throughout rural areas without a concerted effort from Semilla Nueva.

The Problem

Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the world. The civil war, which ended in 1986, left its marks, and the country is still recovering. An estimated 75% of citizens live below the poverty line, and most of them are farmers. Guatemala is marked by inequality, especially between urban and rural areas. The result of these disparities is exclusion, only causing the gap between different classes to grow bigger. Farmers in particular have difficulty escaping the situation -- they are caught in a cycle in which the way they farm is slowly eroding their livelihoods. In Guatemala over 780,000 families grow corn, 78% of which are living in poverty. The income from agriculture is less than $1,500 USDannually, if the weather is good, and excluding the costs of family labor. This means most farmers are harvesting at a loss or barely breaking even. Besides its low income, Guatemala has the fourth highest rate of malnutrition in the world due to the poor agricultural situation. Lastly, the way these farmers plant and harvestis detrimental to the environment: 72% of agricultural lands in the country are categorized as severely degraded.

Despite the millions of dollars spent throughout the past decades by international organizations and the government of Guatemala, rural farmers remain stuck in the same situation due to a mismatch between perceived and actual needs. The problem has three components. First,nearly allfarmers lack the education and access to extension services for learning new techniques, so they use conventional farming systems which include burning and excessive tillage, leaving fractured ecosystems and impoverished soils that produce less and less. The degradation is hastened by the number of people working on the land and using these detrimental techniques. Nearly 65% of citizens generate income solely from agriculture, and others try to make ends meet with the most productive source of income apart from actually growing crops -- harvesting sugarcane. However, this process is expected to mechanize up to 80% within 5 years, eliminating thousands of jobs.Not only is commercial production made impossible with degraded soil and these labor intensive approaches, but production for family consumption alone is difficult,leading to widespread malnutrition.

Second, while the government is positioned to intervene, it lacks motivated and well trained staff and a strong research base to properly design programs to reach farmers. The lack of demand from citizens and development organizations and the lack of continuity (programs and employees usually only last one administration) prevent the government from switching to long-term solutions. The government does offer free fertilizers and seeds to the farmers; however, these services reach only 3% of farmers. Furthermore,the soil degradation and inappropriate farming techniques in play prevent these free resources from being effective. Above all, the distribution of free goods is just a temporary solution that does not address the root cause of the problems.

Lastly, the coordination between social organizations working in the country is inadequate, leading to inappropriate or ineffective solutions. Often, these NGOs do not work together and avoid engaging with local governments because of distrust towards them. Therefore,theylack scale and continuity and focus more on short term results which please donors. As a result,only a small group of farmers is temporarily assisted. This neither pushes local populations to lobby for better government services nor establishes an example for government services to look to for improvement.

The Strategy

After years of experience in agricultural development, Curt founded the non-profit organization Semilla Nueva in 2010, with the aim of transforming the agricultural system in Central America to increaseincome, rebuild soil, and improve the food security of small holderfarmers across the region.Semilla Nueva uses a three-prongedstrategy based on setting incentives for participation for each stakeholder in order to achieve improved living standards of farming families.

The first tier isthe research of new technologies and collaboration with and training of local farmers. Semilla Nueva taps into the experience of development actors in other parts of the world, and through partnerships with international researchers, sources proven and technologies for improving farming practices to be implemented in the region. Semilla Nueva then tests the local viability of the selected technologies through a redesigned farmer to farmer method. Farmers experiment with the new technology on a small part of their landand analyze and share the results with community members and other farmers. In this way, they begin to spread best practices.

To further encourage sharing results and best practices, Semilla Nueva trains the farmers on data-generation, comparing their conventional practices against the new techniques, and helps farmers record costs and yield data to calculate their Return on Investment and promote and verify the efficiency of the tested technology. In local meetings, the farmers share their results and advice and help each other. This farmer-to-farmer approachnot only helps farmers improve the quality and efficiency of their land, but also builds local leadership and organization from within communities.Then, to reinforce the spread of successful new technology and techniques, Semilla Nueva aggregates relevant data, incentivizes farmers to change their practices, and equips them tobecome trainers and independent actors of development. Through this system, farmers can take their own research and demand better services from the government, generating the data they need to improve their own extension services.

In the second tier of its work, Semilla Nueva is committed to making governmental development programs work successfully. By collecting and organizing the needs and insightsthat have been sourced from the farmers, Semilla Nueva has real examples andsolutionsthat work that can be shared. To further assist the government with institutionalizing these solutions, Semillatrains government extension workers (called extensionistas)in these practices so that they can then replicate them and train farmers in other parts of the country. Curt is incentivizing the extensionistas by involving them in the research process and giving them access to the results, therebygiving them ownership of the research alongside the farmers. Thisallows them a way to show the efficiency and results of their work, thereby professionalizing them and increasing their opportunities for better working conditions and of keeping their jobs beyond changes in administration.

Additionally,Semilla Nueva attempts to change the way the government spends money and to establish new patterns of investment. Again leveraging the research conducted by farmers, Semilla and opens the findings to international researchers so that it can be used by the government to help them see what is working and how they can reform their existing programs to be more useful. This allows the government to be more resource effective and to have proof that their programs are working, ensuring continuation in their roles and changing the culture to a more results based one. This multidimensional approach allows the project to grow and continue, impacting the lives of more and more citizens.

The third tier of Semilla Nueva’s model is related to Curt’s belief in the need for a new standard for the citizen sector. Often,CSOs lack the scale and continued presence necessary for deep change, which results in many more short term services. Curt wants to increase these organizations’ efficiency and accountability by having his results and research open and encouraging them to measure their impact and to make the outcomes public so that errors are not repeated and inefficiencies are easy to find. As such,Curt is leading a group to lobby local governments and engage with state institutions. He believes that CSOs can engage both citizens and the appropriate government institutions to initiate and continually encourage a virtuous cycle. Semilla Nueva trains CSOs in this method and collaborates with them.

For example, Semilla Nueva is collaborating with the ICTA (the Guatemalan Institute of Science and Technology) to develop a national strategy for an investigation on agricultural conservation; withMasAgro, a Mexican organization which focuses on sustainable modernization of traditional agriculture; and with the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture to reach farmers more effectively. They will continue to strengthenthese collaborations to build the foundation for a new national agricultural development model which makes Semilla Nueva the first developmental organization in Guatemala to collaborate with the government, social institutions, and individual farmers. Semilla Nueva will involve the Ministry of Agriculture more and more in the data collection of the experiments and farmer to farmer training, which will be the basis for a long-term partnership and continuation of the project. Additionally, they will continue to work on improving the results of the farmers in their partner communities, increasing the profitability of the production and improving the leadership and organizational abilities of the farmers by constantly analyzing and improving the method.

To partner with Semilla, farmers need to have a small piece of land available for experimentation and go through the training for collecting research data. So far, Semilla has worked with over 350 farming families to experiment with a range of technologies. These pilotshaveresulted in harvesting over 2000 pounds of seeds. Additionally, over onehundred families have ended their most environmentally destructive practices, decreasing the prevalence of field burning from an average of 68% in neighboring communities to 23% inSemilla’s partner communities. Furthermore, Semilla’s promotion of a local grain called pigeonpea has helped 1000 families begin growing the grain for family consumption. With Semilla’s assistance, dozens have begun to grow pigeonpea for commercial production, which has led to international support for an export and domestic market with the potential of generating $10-20 million for approximately 100,000 families.

Semilla Nueva´s focus on scale, partnership, and measuring impact has helped them to continually increase access to funding, and they have more than doubled their budget in each of the past four years. To diversify their income, they are working on creating profit generating programs. Several organizations have offered Semilla Nueva funding to train and consult on their work, and the development of the new crop, pigeonpea, has led farmers to make more profits and Semilla Nueva to generate revenue. Current market projections show the possibility of growing Semilla Nueva to their sought after size and becoming profitable within six years using these strategies.

Semilla Nueva has clear plans for the future. Curt wants to deepen his work in Guatemala for 5 years, until full market is reached and the pressing inefficiencies of CSO and government programs are resolved, and then scale to other countries in the region. However, parts of his work are already being replicated by municipalities and foreign CSOs. More broadly, Curt’s goal is for Semilla Nueva to create a foundation to break the vicious cycle of poverty with a systemic vision, so that the farmers can grow themselves out of poverty, working with governments to provide resources more effectively, and building support in civil society.

The Person

Having grown up on a small organic farm in Idaho, agricultural knowledge and social engagement is in Curt’s blood. During his first social action, building a house for a widowed family in Nicaragua, he realized that it was not feasible to help everyone in the same way, and that it was necessary to explore the root causes of extreme poverty, rather than just alleviate its symptoms.

With this in mind, he started his first large activist project, under the name of Whitman Direct Action, in 2006. This project involved working with and training over 50 CSOs in Latin America on biodiesel technology. Curt formed three biodiesel research and training centers, everything financed by grassroots fundraising and grants. Even though the project was well designed, Curt did not find the impact large enough. Knowing that the majority of the world’s poor are farmers, Curt decided to pack his bags for Guatemala, a country where agriculture is one of the primary sectors and in which many people live below the poverty line. Together with his partner Trinidad Recinos who he had met during his biodiesel project, Curt drove through the entire country to plant and harvest alongside farmers. Not only did Curt and Trinidad work together with the farmers, but due to a lack of money, they also slept and ate with the farmers in their houses. This made them understand the problem from the inside out. Curt came in contact with the Farmer to Farmer technique, and after years of research, participation in government institutions and other projects, Curt and Trinidad founded Semilla Nueva. Curt is very passionate about his work and treasures the special relationship he has with the Guatemalan farmers.

Curt has worked for over 9 years in environmental and rural development and has won many awards for his work. In high school he became involved with Ashoka for the first time and received the Ashoka Youth Venture grant for his biodiesel project. In 2013 he was chosen by AshokaChangemakersas one of the 12 leading millennial social entrepreneurs, and in 2014 Curt was a finalist for the Unilever - Ashoka Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs Award. For his biofuel project and sustainable agriculture he was awarded the Davis Projects for Peaceprize in 2009. Thereafter, he was a semi-finalist for Echoing Green in 2010, which led to the creation of Semilla Nueva. Furthermore, he has been recognized and received training from the Ignite Good Millennial Impact Fellowship, in which he was chosen as one of 15 leading social entrepreneurs in the millennial generation in 2012.

Additionally, Curt served as Representative of Guatemalan Civil Society in the Forum for Civil Society of the Organization of American States, where he represented the first CSO in 16 years to provide guidance to the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture policy session, and is he the founding member and executive committee member of the National Committee for Biofortification in Guatemala.

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