Staff Spotlight: Luke Coulson
Luke Coulson has built his education and career in southern Africa. He was born on a sugar estate in Zimbabwe, and in 2001, his family moved to Malawi. He attended university in South Africa, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees, with honors, in economic development and environmental science. He returned to Malawi in 2009; In 2020, he joined Opportunity International as client services manager for agriculture finance.
Committed to Opportunity’s Agriculture Finance overarching mandate to enable farmers to grow more crops and increase their income, Luke puts his personal, educational, and professional experiences to work every day. He impacts the lives of thousands of smallholder farmers and their families, whether in the field listening to clients or at the office, creating systems and processes to support AgFinance’s strategic expansion.
AgFinance works with smallholder farmers across five African countries—DR Congo, Ghana, Malawi, Rwanda, and Uganda—and in each of those countries, community by community, Opportunity listens to farmers to understand their unique challenges and identifies solutions to meet those specific needs. Through partnerships and community-led solutions, we help farmers access training, financial services, and group support that enable them to earn sustainable livelihoods, feed their families, and improve their communities.
Smallholder farming is intrinsically challenging as many variables such as soil fertility, weather patterns, access to good quality agricultural inputs, pests, and disease, and market fluctuations have an impact on a farmer’s profitability. One of the most significant challenges that our clients have noticed over the past several seasons is the increasingly unpredictable weather. Luke recounts that some local farmers “used to plant their crops on a specific date year after year, because the weather patterns were so reliable.” That is no longer the case. Variability in rainfall—often followed by extended dry periods—leaves smallholder farmers with low or no yields, no income, and compromised land.
It is in our organizational DNA—and Luke’s, as well—to listen to our clients and develop strategies to mitigate challenges. In this case, listening led to a climate resilience strategy that enables farmers to better adapt to climate shocks. Opportunity’s approach to climate resilience includes agriculture solutions that help farmers achieve higher yields and sustainability—and financial solutions that strengthen farmers’ economic resilience.
Luke and his team are working on a training curriculum that captures what specific interventions have worked—and which can be replicated and scaled. But it’s not an easy endeavor. Shifting away from farming practices that may have been repeated for generations in favor of a more sustainable, regenerative approach requires human resources—including equipping our Farmer Support Agents to train their network of farmers—and resources such as high-quality seeds, more diverse crops, cover crops, and irrigation equipment.
Opportunity’s AgFinance team also works with financial institution partners to develop and deploy financial products that advance a farmer’s work—like seasonally timed loans, loan guarantees, and savings accounts. Informal savings groups teach farmers how to save and manage their funds and often lead to more formal savings groups that can execute transactions with a local bank on behalf of the group.
For Luke, these programs and partnerships are essential because they support clients like Chrikumbutsi Kalinde, a farmer in Malawi. Chrikumbutsi shared, “In the past, we used to grow soy, but it was not very profitable because we did not have proper training. Since I have received proper agricultural training, both my harvest and profit have increased. My vision for next year is to take another loan and buy corrugated iron to replace my grass roof. I would also like to construct a modern pigsty for my pigs so that I can make money from them.”
This one farmer’s transformative experience—enabled by training, access to financial resources, and group support—is a story that is told by thousands of farmers across five countries in Africa thanks to mission-focused leaders like Luke and Opportunity’s agriculture finance program. Farmers are growing more and earning more income, creating sustainable livelihoods, lifting up their families, and defining what it means to be resilient.