Forests and agriculture | Opinion

Collective action for durable smallholder farmer supply chains

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The problems facing smallholder farmer communities require new cross-sector holistic solutions

A key driver of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the persistence of rural poverty in developing countries, and the behaviours to which that poverty drives smallholder farmers.

Yet these are the same communities with which many in the corporate sector have been working for many years to address issues such as rural incomes and environmental degradation.

Though much has been achieved, it is clear that more needs to be done, and that “more” needs to be based on greater collaboration between companies operating in different commodity supply chains.

Moreover, the debates remain blind-sided on key issues such as the political and sociological factors which govern communities in which supply chains operate. This too needs to change.

But what does a “more” that addresses these issues look like? 

What is proposed here is not intended to step on the toes of existing activities, membership organisations and initiatives. Rather, it is a process to share, and fill gaps in our knowledge about smallholder farmers around the world, so that interventions on the ground can be as well-informed as possible.

 What’s the problem?

Covid-19 has demonstrated how rapidly a zoonotic disease can spread, and how devastating that spread can be. Yet the risks of future pandemics are very real, and rural poverty is a significant driver of this.

Poor productivity and the need to increase incomes lead smallholders to cut down forests, leading to increased deforestation; low household incomes mean that rural communities sometimes resort to hunting bushmeat, which contributes to the trade in endangered species.

Yet agribusinesses have long recognised that small scale farmers are central to the creation of genuinely durable supply chains around the world.

Considerable efforts have been made to improve the incomes and welfare of smallholder communities, and to engage these farmers to help address the fact that farmers’ behaviours are significant drivers of environmental challenges such as deforestation and habitat degradation.

 Solutions elusive 

Yet these efforts have yet to yield durable solutions. We think there are three central explanations for this. 
  1. Those involved have often shied away from looking at some of the really difficult but fundamental issues because they are regarded as too complicated or scary. Key challenges such as host government capacity, inadequate enforcement of laws, and implications of land tenure arrangements remain poorly understood. As a result, solutions for them have not really been explored properly.
  2. Work on sustainable supply chains has typically been done in commodity-specific silos. Yet most commodities do not exist alone – they are grown alongside other crops, and within social settings that have a fundamental impact on what is possible. These contextual issues – the political economy in which supply chains exist – do not really figure in existing efforts to create sustainable supply chains.
  3. Commodity-specific approaches mean that lessons learned by companies operating in different silos are rarely shared. Membership organisations mean that lessons may be shared between companies operating in the same commodity chain, yet few structures exist to share learning between these different sets of lessons need to be better shared both to deepen our understanding of the problems, and to identify better where the gaps are in that understanding.
Alternative approach 

A better approach could be to bring together leading companies, and others including development agencies and NGOs, operating in a range of commodities to share learning and differences in smallholder transformation towards resilience and durability.

Instead of working on a commodity-by-commodity basis, such work can focus on different geographies, seeking to explore the way in which different companies and other stakeholders need to collaborate to effect durable change.

There is a genuine appetite to do just this. People want to be frank about these issues and find ways of addressing them. Ways which will actually work.
  1. Focus on sharing knowledge across commodities, from cotton to palm to cocoa. At present, insights into developing durable supply chains exist in silos, with different companies having different pieces of the jigsaw. An alternative process could begin by bringing the silos together so that companies in these different commodities, and others, can share their knowledge about what works, what does not and what issues remain unclear and unknown.
  2. Bring in new insight and analysis about what post Covid-19 business looks like. What is noteworthy about current discussions about building durable supply chains is that insights into a number of significant issues are almost entirely lacking. For example, we know little about the societal dynamics of communities in which supply chains exist, and rarely are senior figures from host governments and their domestic institutions engaged in what companies are doing. There is a need to consider the politics of real change for smallholders through thinking in terms of:
  • Political science: to provide insights into issues such as how governmental structures in host countries operate. 
  • Development economics: build on existing knowledge about how economic development happens in rural communities.
  • Ethnography: to develop understanding on issues such as how communities operate, and how to effect lasting change within long-established social structures.

3. Be action focused: There is little point in research and analysis for its own sake, but rather to inform concrete actions on the ground. A better approach is to derive specific recommendations for action in key geographies where commodity supply chains operate. Put to one side any academic or ideological bias and try to find out what works.

What’s required is an ongoing, iterative process that facilitates lesson learning between companies in different commodity sectors; builds collective understanding of the challenges to create durable supply chains; and, defines and implements action to address these challenges effectively.

Please click here for a lengthier version of the above and more detail on how Innovation Forum plans to put into action the proposed solutions. If you are interested in more details please contact Toby Webb to discuss.


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