Forests and agriculture | Opinion

Why new approaches are needed to smallholder farming

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Peter Stanbury outlines a three-phase approach to tackle effectively the challenges of developing smallholder farmer resilience

Small scale farmers are central to the creation of genuinely durable supply chains in many parts of the world. Most obviously there is a need to improve the incomes and welfare of smallholder communities.

However, the actions of these farmers are key drivers of environmental challenges such as deforestation and habitat degradation. Efforts to address these challenges have yet to yield durable solutions.

This could be the result of a number of factors:

  • Work on smallholder supply chains to date 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 a host government capacity, inadequate enforcement of laws, and implications of land tenure arrangements remain poorly understood.
  • Improvement efforts on sustainable supply chains have typically been done in commodity-specific silos. Yet most commodities do not exist alone – they are grown alongside other crops, and within social settings which have a fundamental impact on what is possible.
  • 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 commodities.

A three-phase approach is a possible solution to address these issues. 

1. Sharing experiences

Speak to the key people at a variety of relevant companies and other organisations to understand their experience in working with smallholder farmers. This process can identify:

  • key areas of synergy in what companies have learned, both in terms of what has worked, and what has not worked; 
  • notable differences in experiences, either by commodity, or by geography; and 
  • where the most significant gaps in knowledge are, and how might these be addressed.
 
2. Seeking new insights

The next stage is to incorporate insights from fields such as political science, development economics and ethnography. This should focus on the situation in key selected places, and analyse:

  • wider societal issues, and how these affect smallholder behaviours; 
  • other activities that are underway (for example, work by host governments) which affect smallholder communities; and 
  • how the lessons gathered from experience might be applied in practice.
 
3. Evidence-based action

There is no point in research and analysis for its own sake – rather we need to inform concrete actions on the ground. Specific recommendations for action in key geographies are what’s required, where commodity supply chains operate. Put to one side academic or ideological bias – focus on how to support companies to find out what works.

Right now, there are questions  how the procurement function will need to change, and what it will look like post Covid-19 and towards 2025. Given that business objectives on the one hand, and smallholder transformation pressures on the other, are combining with traceability to offer more direct sourcing and relationships, it will be interesting to see over time what this means for companies.

The key point, though, is for collaboration and to share experience for the benefit of all. That is how to learn more about what works in addressing challenges in smallholder supply chains, so that companies and their stakeholders can improve their impacts on the ground

Dr Peter Stanbury is principal, Frontier Practice, and a senior associate with Innovation Forum. He is leading a research project focused on developing more resilient smallholder supply chains. For more information or to get involved please contact Innovation Forum head of partnerships Anita Thomson at: [email protected]

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